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Are You Worthy of Being a Leader?

June 17, 2012

Are you into power?

Does holding authority over others give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction?

Before you answer these two questions take a moment to reflect. Be honest with yourself.

I’ve been a student of leadership for two decades. During this period I’ve come across dozens and dozens of definitions of what constitutes leadership and its cousin, management. Too many commentators (whether authors, consultants and business people) refer to leadership being a process of using power to influence how others think and act.

I find such a perspective to be not just insulting to human beings, but outdated in today’s society. We’re faced with rapid technological change, a five generation workforce (each with different values and expectations) and mounting global competition from new industrialized countries. Yes, leadership is sorely needed today, both political and business. However, the use of power as a means to induce people to work towards a common end is a balancing act.

The risk is that people may fall into a compliance mindset, obeying instructions out of fear or simply feeling that they’re not being listened to. The result is stifled creativity, weak innovation and poor employee performance.

No, leadership is not about using power over people. It’s about creating the conditions where people understand the common good (shared vision), how each of them can contribute to this vision and feeling safe that they, too, can step forward at the right time to lead during a particular phase.

Managers attempt to achieve order in the midst of chaos through the use of such traditional management tools as planning, organizing and controlling. In contrast leaders live with uncertainty, indeed thriving on it, as they create the conditions for followership through a shared vision. From this process emerges new leaders, new insights and new ways of doing business.

The late John W. Gardner (U.S. Marine, professor, political advisor to Presidents and businessman) summed it up eloquently in his 1990 book, On Leadership (a must read):

We must not confuse leadership with status. Even in large corporations and government agencies, the top-ranking person may simply be bureaucrat number 1. We have all occasionally encountered top persons who couldn’t lead a squad of seven-year olds to the ice cream counter….Similarly, we must not confuse leadership with power. Leaders always have some measure of power, rooted in their capacity to persuade, but many people are without leadership gifts….Confusion between leadership and official authority has a deadly effect on large organizations.

Here are three more questions to stimulate your personal reflection:

1) How do you practice your leadership, at work, at home or in your community?

2) How do you go about influencing people to achieve your aim?

3) Are you successful, and what are the results?

In any community, some people are more or less irretrievably bad and others more or less consistently good. But the behavior of most people is profoundly influenced by the moral climate of the moment. One of the leader’s task is to help ensure the soundness of that moral climate.

– John W. Gardner (On Leadership, 1990)

Photo by Jim Taggart (San Diego Zoo)

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