The Myth of Leadership

“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

In spite of the voluminous amount of literature on leadership, we know precious little about what traits, aptitudes, and styles effective leaders should possess. We have yet to reach consensus on whether leaders are born or made; whether leaders are smarter or just luckier than their followers; and, whether physical attributes play a role in who is considered having leadership potential. Leadership remains an elusive concept. If results are lacking, poor leadership is relatively easy to spot. However, even poor leadership can be spackled over if results are meet or exceed expectations. How much credit should the nominal leader get for hitting the goal targets, creating a productive culture and unleashing the full potential of their people? With unsatisfactory results, can one be considered an effective leader? Does one become an effective leader by simply being promoted to a key position in the organization? Is organizational leadership restricted to high flyers and those in key positions? Finally, is there a specific leadership style that works better than other styles? Each of these questions beg even bigger questions—is leadership restricted to a certain caste or type of person or, most importantly, is it a difference-maker? Who should get the credit for organizational success or blame for falling short of objectives? My personal philosophy regarding credit and blame is simple. When things go right, the so-called leader needs to sit down, lower his/her profile and let the doers bask in a job well done. Similarly, when things go wrong, and they will, the leader should stand up and accept accountability for missed opportunities their team failed to see or maximize. The role of the leader is to provide direction, resources, and support to his/her work unit.

An effective leader is like a good referee and coach in a sporting event. They recognize that their role is to facilitate a contest free of rule violations without becoming disruptive to the flow of the game. Similar to an athletic contest, the business game is divided into four quarters. The players (workers) responsibility is to execute the game plan. In real-time, once the game starts, the leader becomes the referee and coach. During the game, leadership should shift to the workers who must make critical decisions at game speed. The hand off of leadership to the workers is fraught with anxiety for many in leadership positions. Often, they don’t trust their employees. This lack of trust often leads to micro-management interventions that slow down, confuse and frustrate. As a result, employees often find it safest to play dumb and wait to be told versus taking initiatives they believe would result in goal attainment. Consequently, the innate leadership abilities of the employee are stifled. Outside of work, many of these employees are leaders in their social groups, churches, synagogues, and temples. Instead of tapping into their natural leadership abilities, at work, these employees are often viewed as little more than programmed automatons.

This type of top-down and command-control environment shrinks, instead of enlarging the ‘solution space’ where creativity is housed. When we don’t allow employees to “bring their whole selves to work”, we blunt both their problem solving and problem finding capacity.In a real sense, leadership is the process of inspiring and cultivating new thought leaders. As Tom Peters said, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” So, exactly, how does this transformation process work? Is there a secret elixir that combines all the elements of effective leadership into a working style? The answer is yes. The two most important roles of a leader are to (1) provide timely and clear direction, and (2) be a servant leader. Imagine a triangle pointing up [ Directional leadership] and another separate triangle pointing down [Servant leadership]. Based on the literature, when combined the new triangle looks like a Diamond. Practicing Diamond Leadership ensures that people know what the destination is and that they will be provided the support and resources needed.

If we tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.”

–General George S. Patton

Directional Leadership

The tip of the triangle is pointing up because being a leader requires that we provide direction.When we think about being the boss, our thoughts usually start with a mental image of giving directions. We think of bosses always in the ‘telling’ mode. Bosses are notorious for telling people what to do, how to do it and when to do it. While, inevitably,leadership must lead; it is unnecessary to always assume that your charges don’t know how to get the desired results. If you are a receptive and supportive boss, your people will know they can ask for help on the ‘how’ without being labeled inadequate or, worse yet, incompetent.

“He who serves the most grows the fastest.”

–Andy Andrews

Servant Leadership

This triangle points down. The direction and attention are towards the follower. If there are no followers, there is no leader. The relationship between leaders and followers is inextricable.Leaders make demands on followers. However, while not explicit in making demands, followers have certain basic expectations of leaders. Specifically, followers expect leaders to provide a vision, a hope and an environment of trust. The servant-leader possesses a high Emotional intelligence( EQ). S/he believes, at their core, that, vis-à-vis their followers, their first role is to serve them. Their posture is to keep their “ear to the ground” and listen; to be responsive and supportive; and, create a nurturing and stimulating environment that encourages the follower to exploit his/her full potential.

Diamond Leadership

The Diamond represents the merger of Directional and Servant Leadership. Once you merge these two triangles and internalize them as an operating style and principle, you are well on your way to an effective management style. You recognize that a critical component of leadership involves being able to stand up and be accountable for tough calls. Equally important, you realize that your ultimate role is to support and unlock the potential of your people. As a Diamond leader, you will radiate and sparkle as a unique and valuable asset to the organization.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do and become more, you were a leader.”

-John Quincy Adams.