Truth is, I’m so tired of all the glorified myths and “inspirational” legends about “leadership.” I think that leadership is a state of mind, an effort of will. Sometimes it is not very pretty stuff. Sometimes great leaders are not very likeable people. Sometimes very likeable people are not very good leaders. And, what is “leadership” anyway? Management? Administration? Bureaucracy? Is leadership independent of environment? Could great leadership in one environment be frowned upon behavior in another? Is it only for the glorious few shining brightly at the top of the hierarchical pyramid? Does great leadership provide service to others, or deal in self-absorbed validation to the individual?
My observation is that real leadership is found in very common, unassuming people doing their best to operate with honesty and transparency somewhere toward the middle or bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, buffeted by aromatic warm winds emanating from above, embracing the fears and concerns of those surrounding them who are most vulnerable. The real leader buffers the sea of passion and talent closest to the true organizational mission from the duplicity and incompetence from above. Not an easy job. Not much glory to be found there.
But mostly, I think real leaders simply move to get things done. In this sense, leadership is independent of role or position in the hierarchy. I regularly witness individuals who stand forward, assume the tasks and accept the responsibilities needed to make positive things happen. They take ownership. The quality of their work makes the work of others more tenable. They have the back of their colleagues, and even that of their supervisors. They are real leaders.
I think that many top executives are very lucky for at least two reasons. First, in the absence of any real leadership qualities of their own, they benefit from a host of deeply committed individuals who regularly show outstanding leadership skills, usually in the process of mopping up the collective damage done by those very same top executives. Second, those in the organization who show real leadership and keep the mission alive through their competence, commitment and character are, fortunately for the top executive, not in the position of evaluating or terminating those top executives. Those are two reasons some top executives I know of should consider themselves very, very lucky.
What I am getting from the various “leadership” articles and books out there is that, however defined, there is little real leadership going on in the ranks of top executives. Quite the opposite, it seems. They appear to talk a good game. But get ’em on the court and they really stink it up.
Needless to say, I am a fan of the unruly mob occupying usually the bottom third or so of the organizational pyramid. Over forty some years working in different industries and locations, I am in general struck by their passion, commitment and character. I don’t know what has happened to American corporate management, if anything has happened at all. I do suspect that many of the best and brightest commanding the highest compensations and in greatest demand are, in reality, not really all that bright. I’m not convinced they are the best. Perhaps it has always been this way. Perhaps it is this way everywhere. In any case, it is hard to spot much intelligence in those ethereal heights of corporate enterprise.
If I had to define leadership, I would rely on the oft-used, probably over-used phrase: “leadership as service.” If you aren’t providing the resources, guidelines, information, organization setting or environment of achievement necessary to fulfill the organizational mission to a reasonable degree, you probably aren’t much of a leader. If you always blame everyone and everything else, but cannot hold yourself accountable, you are a fool. If it’s always someone else’s problem, you definitely aren’t a leader. If you think that workers closest to the mission are, in general, expendable, you are a liability.
I am left with a great sense of value and compassion, of pleasure and respect, for those good souls who bring great passion, commitment and character to their workplace. I have some who work for me, who report directly to me. In so many ways I have learned from them the true meaning of leadership.
Note: this article is a slightly edited re-submission of an article I wrote many months ago, entitled “Finding Leadership.” Since that writing, I have found little to shift my perspective on this subject. There is no doubt that the demands and pressures on top executives can be extraordinary. But, as in all other aspects of life, our real character is revealed as we address and adapt to those demands and to the sometimes unpredictably shifting environments we operate within. All too often I observe an “us versus them” relationship between executives and workforce is the result. Consequently, communication suffers, critical resources are spent ensuring that the unfortunate fiction of opposition within the organization becomes real, and perhaps most importantly the trust and credibility of executives by the workforce is fractured, likely a permanent and self-reinforcing feedback loop. I believe that many inadvisable executive practices are fear-based, where courage is actually the disposition of success. Each individual must reach deep within themselves to find the courage to lead. In the end, the leadership of success is found, by consensus, within a powerful community of mission-centric individuals, a cultural phenomenon that only the most insightful leaders acknowledge and ultimately achieve.