Finding Leadership

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I’ve got a great read going on: Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer. According to his Amazon profile, Dr Pfeffer is the “Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979.” Also a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. From the Amazon synopsis for the book: “By calling BS on so many of the stories and myths of leadership, he gives people a more scientific look at the evidence and better information to guide their careers.”

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 leadershp 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, buffetted 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, committment 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 organizaitonal pyramid. Over forty some years working in different industries and locations, I am in general struck by their passion, committment 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 think it to be an affair of both heart and mind. And in the final analysis, I still see more it going on “in the ranks” than “at the top.”

According to Pfeffer, no matter what myths are associated with our idolized set of ideal great leaders, they are imperfect people. That gives me a bit of hope, as I can identify profoundly with that particular group of people.

I am left with a great sense of value and compassion, of pleasure and respect, for those good souls who bring great passion, committment 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.

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