Who hasn’t had the opportunity to either experience leadership (good or bad) in action, or to exert leadership in some setting? Some basic observations from both sides of that experience can translate into effective rules for successful leadership.
A leader motivates through encouragement rather than ridicule or intimidation: Motivation involves the personal goals of the participants, not just the leader’s goals. Smart leaders try to help participants attain their personal goals, knowing that this will result in high achievement for team goals and project goals. Ridicule or intimidation are thought to be a shortcut to motivation, actually they undermine it and cancel it out. They’re a form of defeating the soldiers on your own team, and threatening the others. Effective leadership understands and equips team members with what they need for success.
A leader doesn’t favors power over control: Power doesn’t need to exert control, it is confident enough that it can afford to persuade. When one reaches for control, it’s actually a denial of power, a confession that one doesn’t have it, and it’s to relinquish power in that area. Controlling people reduces them to ‘monkeys’ – anyone can go read a presentation for you but, if they’re not motivated, how likely is it that they’re going to win your audience and turn them into evangelists for your product? In most cases, anyone can meet the basic requirements and job description, and deliver what you ask on time. Whether or not they will be amazing, exceed your expectations, and deliver a ‘wow’ at the end is based largely on motivation, interest, and their own personal sense of meaning and success. It has to mean something to them and, if it does, and you know what it is and how to ensure they have that meaning, you don’t need control – you have power. Power is the power to create vehicles of meaning – which is why a master presenter can close the deal for your product in the hearts and minds of your audience. It’s not because he reads a powerpoint in the voice of Charlton Heston – it’s because he thinks about the sources of meaning for his audience.
A leader welcomes challenges rather than basing authority on absolutes: The ‘my way or the highway’, ‘what I want, and I don’t care about the rest’ approach is often thought to be authority. Respect for authority is said, in bad leadership, to be jumping on-demand like a wind-up toy, to whatever one is told. But real authority (real leadership) isn’t based on absolutes. Real authority comes not from cancelling discussion, even after you’ve made up your mind, but from continually listening, considering alternatives, and welcoming constructive challenges. Authority that expects to be followed without question or challenge is actually undermining its own effectiveness. The role of the best minds on a team or project is to ‘push back’ when something may affect outcomes – if you silence that when you’ve made up your mind, you silence it for the future when you’ll need it to ensure your own success. That’s not authority – that’s absolutism. A leader with authority frees his people from burdens by letting them know the concern has been heard and documented, and that the responsibility for deciding against it is on the leader.
A leader doesn’t ask you to accept responsibility without control: A leader doesn’t leave it on others if we fail and on himself if we succeed. There are many forms of this. If you’re given a goal and a deadline, but then a number of other things are piled on, and the deadline isn’t moved, that’s a form of responsibility without control. “Just get it done.” isn’t the answer of leadership – it’s the answer of someone who intends to blame others for failure. If you can’t go to a leader with, “I can do what you ask, based on this time frame, or moving these things around – which do you prefer?” — not without invoking anger, frustration, and threats – then it isn’t leadership, it’s dumping on you. An effective leader gives you control over the things for which you are responsible.
A leader cultivates respect by giving respect rather than shame or fear: An effective leader doesn’t confuse cowed people who offer up the rituals of deference with loyal people who are working for you because it’s a joy to do so. The latter will work through hard times, rough waters, and pour their particular genius into the project. The former will do what you say. Would you prefer someone who does what you say or what you intend? Leaders who try to use fear and shame as motivators have a belief in their own infallibility. But leaders who recognize their fallibility are more effective, and know that what they need are fully-engaged minds, who wed their hearts to their work. This is accomplished by creating an environment of mutual respect. Often you’ll get schizophrenic environments where intimidation and ridicule are coupled with praise and pats on the head. For one thing, pats on the head aren’t the same thing – if you don’t mean it, no matter how ‘good’ you think you are, and how much your people pretend, deep down the best ones will know it. For another, on-again off-again respect-riducle fame-fear motivation attempts turn your team dynamics into a vending machine of self-serving detachment. If you want to win the nods but lose the will, use shame and fear to ‘master’ your team members. Effective leaders honor contributions with daily consideration.
Things bad leaders say:
- “But you don’t understand what it takes to lead in this environment. This is different.” (the ‘it was war, and war is Hell’ argument – excusing bad leadership by appeal to context)
- “It’s because you’re difficult to manage. Sometimes I have to do things I ordinarily wouldn’t do, just to get through to you.” (the ‘you made me beat you’ argument – excusing bad leadership by blaming the followers)
- “I do what I have to do – if you don’t like it, feel free to leave.” (a combination of the ‘leaders aren’t subject to standards for means, just for ends’ and the ‘love it or leave it’ arguments)
- “You have to do what you’re told. That’s all there is to it.” (an appeal to absolutes – to control disguised as authority – excusing bad leadership by silencing anyone who thinks differently)
- “Don’t complain and stop asking questions. Just get it done.” (the ‘make bricks without straw’ response’)
As much as a leader may talk about knowing how to motivate people, what it takes to be successful, and delivering the end result, these are just excuses for doing it badly. And it doesn’t work. The results of this kind of ‘leadership’ is that you stress out your most diligent workhorses, you create an amoral “every man for himself” atmosphere that expresses itself in gossip, tattling, backstabbing, and other social dysfunctions – bad team dynamics, and you de-motivate your most dedicated people – decreasing their loyalty and their concerns for keeping all the pieces together – you create silos. These things are the inevitable results of bad leadership that covers for, makes excuses for, and exalts itself, and blames others.
Leadership books are a dime a dozen. But there are few of them that recommend the techniques of bad leadership mentioned above, and most of the rules above would be considered basic to human motivation. That means even a wet-behind-the-ears assistant manager at a burger joint, or a green corporal may command more successfully than a veteran ruler with six figures and some initials in his title. But you would rather be that person? Or would you rather be that person and be effective?
The cost for bad leadership in a corporate millieu where bad leadership is ubiquitous seems relatively small. So yes, you may not pay for it all that much, and may prefer to take little lumps than do the work of being a decent human being, which is all a good leader really is – a decent human being in the context of leadership. How many “nice” people would turn into little monsters if they took on the mantle of command? This is the key point: I’m not going to try to tell you that you’ll suffer greatly and endlessly if you don’t follow these rules – you’ll achieve a mixture of mediocrity and success that will likely get you promoted through to retirement. I’m not using the fear of punishment as a motivator, here. Instead, I’m saying if you want to be amazing at it, want tremendous success, want silly levels of honor as a leader, then follow the above rules like they were gospel.
Things effective leaders say:
- What do you need from me in order to be successful? (This should be something you hear periodically.)
- What do you want in the context of this team and this organization? What are you working towards? (Assesses individual motivators. A good leader will help his people achieve these.)
- What am I doing well as a leader, and what can I do better? (Invites openness about personal and professional development, leads by example)
Not everyone is cut out to stand at the front of an organization structure; some are the right hand or the left or the rear guard or the avante garde. Leadership, though, as a conscious set of efforts to be effective, is useful in a lot of venues. The same person who is your right hand man, may be a leader at home, his church, in a non-profit, or in a small business for which he moonlights. The lessons from that are: an effective leader can often lead from behind the scenes (he doesn’t need constantly to be recognized as a leader), if you’re an ineffective leader, your mistakes are likely to be obvious to a whole range of people you don’t suspect, and leadership, effectively, is shared – it doesn’t demand sole exercise of the leadership role. Take away what you will, but leadership is everywhere; in any crowd of 100 people, it’s more likely that 75 will be leaders than 10. And we’re watching, and discussing this. Good leaders are icons and bad leaders are bywords in the effort to understand and use the rules of effective leadership. If nothing else, we can observe the successes and mistakes of others and the consequences of them, and hone our own skills. So lead on… lead from the front, and not your rear.