If you want to know if a fish is bad, look at its head? Over the past couple of days I have been privileged to read 2 excellent and contrasting articles which in their different ways go a long way towards helping us to understand where the leaders of the future will come from, what they will be like, and whether or not they will be radically different than before.
Reviewing fellow contributor Rob Ashgar’s book, “Leadership is Hell: How to manage well and Escape with your Soul”, Forbes’ Cheryl Conner makes the point that, “in many ways, leadership is the world’s most thankless job.” So why do we all want to lead so much, and why are we conditioned to equate leadership with success from such an early age? Answering this question makes for uncomfortable reading; here goes. Most of us want to lead because our ego believes we can, and the fact that we think we should is mostly down to ourselves; if we really think about it, how many of us find little external encouragement to be a leader, yet keep striving to be one?
In his book, Ashgar highlights 7 missteps, or roads which severely hamper your ability to lead, and indeed demonstrate to others that leadership may not be your strongest suit. You have blind spots, for example, weaknesses you are unaware of but which are all too obvious to your colleagues. You are too sensitive / not sensitive enough, you try to do everything yourself and avoid delegating. Your motivation to be successful is born of selfishness rather than empathy, or you are there because you don’t know what else to do. Eye watering stuff. But we all have our moments of self-doubt, right, times when we question our decisions, and whether our influence stretches too far this time.
Actually no. To put it bluntly, if you are experiencing doubt, agonising over decisions, or seeking approval from others, then the chances are you are not a leader. The confusion you feel is not a natural side-effect of sticking your neck out for others, but more likely it comes from not knowing what role you can play in society or in the workplace. Perhaps, if you are totally honest with yourself, you feel a twinge of jealousy when you see others engaging in good leadership practice.
As Cheryl Conner explains, “All of us should be free to realize we can make a great impact on the world without managing people. For example, most people will make a bigger impact as teachers, not principals (even though we may envy or even desire the illusion of power).” Being a leader is not a decision that we make, we simply are or we aren’t.
Let’s look at what makes an effective leader, or to put it another way, why some people become leaders and others don’t. And finally let’s ask ourselves, do leaders actually do what we think they do?
Leaders are not necessarily ambitious people, and they are very unlikely to be emotional people. They achieve success and people follow them precisely because they are conservative in their decision making. Basically, they see life as a test of endurance; they just want to get through the day without experiencing a crisis, endangering themselves or others, or making mistakes.
The vast majority of people feel exactly the same way. They enjoy being entertained, but they don’t enjoy confrontation or being challenged. They have personal goals they wish to achieve; a family, shelter, protecting the group, and they will identify strongly with and support anyone who can demonstrate that they can provide an environment that will help them to achieve this.
A leader becomes popular not because they stand out from the crowd, but because the crowd can see that they are one of them. A leader will usually be the first to identify the mood within the group; what they fear, and what they want to achieve. From there on in, the leader’s job is not to have brilliant and inspirational ideas, but to protect people from those that do!
Leaders understand that most people are not reaching for the stars, find their work tedious and repetitive, but are prepared to carry it out provided their safety, and ability to pursue other interests, is guaranteed. A leader doesn’t really inspire, they protect. Experimentation and progress are all very well, but people are highly suspicious of anything that threatens their way of life. A hot head, agitator, scientist, inventor, politician, soldier even, will struggle to re-assure you that everything will be tomorrow the same or similar to how it was today. A leader, on the other hand, doesn’t require a get out clause. They are totally focused on the task at hand, and that is what people respect.
So if you are a creative type struggling to get your point across, frustrated at the slow progress of a project, or disappointed by what you perceive as a general apathy, you are not going to win the popularity contest that is a leader’s rite de passage. But look, is that such a bad thing? You probably need to ask yourself, “Am I taking too many risks, is that why people are not coming on board”. If so, take on the risk yourself, don’t expect others to carry your burden.
This is how you can become an effective part of the group. It is unhealthy to fret about whether a leader is more popular than you are, or more intelligent. The difference is people are willing to follow them because they do not ask people to do things that unnerve them. A leader doesn’t have magical powers, they are just another personality making up the group. Don’t fear them, don’t try to copy them. Use them, it’s what they are there for. Admit it: you, like everybody else, are grateful that the group dynamic has provided for you in this way.
The second article this week that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go was penned by someone I had never heard of before, but who immediately stood out as someone possessing the qualities I have discussed above. “Post-Money Evaluations, what I’ve learned in 2 years at USV”, reads like a mission statement, full of useful insight, honesty and intelligence. Again, author Brian Watson is not trying to re-invent the wheel, or change the way we do business, but he is dealing in what Nathan Benaich of Playfair Capital, who brought my attention to the article via his Twitter feed, describes as “bite-sized” pieces of wisdom. “Prioritize being present”, “Curate who you follow”, “Research in public”. Not rocket science, but advice easily forgotten as you rush to be the next big thing.
Most businesses fail because the founders lose interest. If you have the vision and the tenacity to keep pushing for something whilst growing, not losing your support base, then you may very well be a leader, and therefore we don’t need to tell you to relax, and enjoy the ride!
Brian Watson: Post-Money evaluations – https://medium.com/@bwats/post-money-evaluations-43e76274d20e
Cheryl Conner: Should you lead? Here’s Why (or Why Not) – http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2014/06/04/should-you-lead-heres-why-or-why-not/