Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the topic of Leadership

By Jim Heckel, 2003

Preface note: this is a paper that will become an integral part of my class this fall on Effective Teamwork at FRCC. What is YOUR definition of leadership?

I continuously wonder about the mystery of leadership. I have worked for years trying to define leadership—beyond the simplistic dictionary explanation. As a manager for more than 30 years, I’ve attended various leadership classes, sat at the feet of authors on this and related topics (James M. Kouzes, Barry Z. Posner, Tom Peters, Dr. Edwards Deming, among others) and read many leadership books. Within this quest to learn, however, authors seem to offer many characteristics of leadership and can provide a litany of good leaders, yet they seem to avoid positing a definition.

Some scholars indicate that leadership is something that is provided. Some indicate that leadership cannot be taught; you either have it or not. Very few schools have classes on the topic, yet simultaneously offer studies about great leaders and stress the importance of effective leadership. In many cases, large organizations seem to make the tacit assumption that high-ranked managers are also good leaders (how else could they have achieved such lofty status?). Value judgments are typically associated with leadership being of the positive nature and not the vice. The paradox is that the many axioms of leadership are simply fabricated notions with little or no empirical data for substantiation. Short-term positive organizational results (profits, market share, earnings per share, customer satisfaction, group morale, etc.) are typically correlated with effective leadership comments, but over the long-term, such results may not be sustainable. Let’s look at a few of these so-called axioms, or more accurately termed, myths.

Leadership Myths:

1. High ranked managers/officials/officers typically are good leaders.

2. You are either a good leader or a good follower.

3. Leadership is about getting people to follow you.

4. There exists no solid leadership process.

1.) High ranked managers/officials/officers typically are good leaders.

This myth stems from simple logic that if one is promoted to a position of authority, then clearly such an individual must possess some leadership attributes. The simple logic continues and then appoints such individuals to teach on the subject where the myth is perpetuated and substantiated through the positional power of the presenter. “…our boss… he even gave seminars on the topic of leadership! Was he a good leader? Not in my estimation. Did he get a lot of things accomplished for the organization? Absolutely. People followed him because they had to, not because they had respect for him or that they wanted to go in the direction that he was headed. “

Positional power or authority wields mandated followership, else pay the consequences! (In the example above, failing to follow would result in losing one’s job.) I manage, therefore, I lead. Our business world is replete with examples of powerful managers that get short-term results, yet may or may not be effective long-term leaders. People do not genuinely follow such managers; they simply obey commands. “Obeying commands” is simply a self-preservation activity, which may/may not be associated with the concept of “following” someone because we like where he or she is going. …True leadership… Examples of this type of leadership can be found in professional sports teams where players will be traded to another team such that they can be under the leadership of a desired coach. Depending on our age, we may all be able to reflect about someone that we really wanted to follow. Think about the following questions within the context of this individual’s leadership style and why it was that you wanted to go her/his direction:

v What attracted you to this individual?

v Was this individual “walking the her/his talk?”

v Did you trust this individual? (Acid test for trust: would you let this individual baby-sit your 2 year old child for a weekend?)

v Was it easy to follow this person?

v Were they an effective communicator? Do they know how to listen?

v Was the individual’s motivation altruistic?

v Did they motivate you without even knowing it?

v Did you genuinely care for the success of this individual?

v Did you genuinely feel that this individual cared for your success?

v Did this individual flaunt power or was this individual arrogant and proud?

v Did this individual “give up” credit for accomplishments?

v Did this individual periodically let other people take the helm of leadership?

By whipping through some of the above questions it should become clear whether or not this person was a genuine leader, or simply a manager with positional authority (or simply a manipulator…another topic entirely!).

The corollary to myth #1 is that some of the most keen and brilliant leadership is demonstrated in the lowest (organizationally speaking only!) echelons of organizations between and within small groups or teams. Rarely are these brilliant talents either recognized or harvested but instead are simply mislabeled as teamwork or some other non-descriptive term. This is probably why performance evaluations fail to contain evaluative leadership language at the lower echelons of organizations. After all, why would the hourly production worker need any leadership skills? Theirs is to follow, not lead!

2) You are either a good leader or a good follower.

Fact: Leadership = Followership. This is the complete model of leadership, knowing when to do either. Followership, however, must be a desired condition, not a forced one. If one desires to follow another there must be a foundation of trust.

Effective leadership requires effective Followership and the quality of leadership knows when to do either. It’s a dynamic model shifting as needed.

3) Leadership is about getting people to follow you.

If this myth is true, then the pied piper was a brilliant leader. I would submit that to simply get people to follow is managerial at best and manipulative at worst. This is a very shallow perception/definition of leadership, one that fails to grasp the totality of deep and true leadership. Leadership isn’t about artificially coaxing people to follow. Leadership is about creating a future environment that becomes another’s shared aspiration or vision. While it is true that an effective leader garners the respect of people and results in people desiring to follow, such results of “garnered followership” are a byproduct versus the end result. In short the leader’s goal is not to get people to follow, but to provision people a future direction where following is natural.

4) There exist no solid leadership process.

Definition: Leadership is the art of affecting change. Leadership is neither good nor bad. Leadership produces change in a non-manipulative, non-threatening manner that is not solely based on power. Leadership is relationship centric and will only exist where trust has been banked for a substantial amount of time. Leadership cannot exist in an environment that is even slightly littered with behavioral inconsistencies, lack of individual respect or ineffectual communication. There is a process.

The Leadership Success Spiral is built on the foundation of trust, which is defined as a reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person. Trust takes years to build and nano-seconds to lose. Once trust is broken, the Leadership Spiral is halted; until such time that the trust is restored or re-manufactured. The degree to which the trust is lost is a function of the perceived severity of the trust infraction.

After a solid trust foundation is built, a leadership-relationship may be established. This relationship may be personal in nature or span across an entire organization. The relationship always rests on the foundation of trust in all cases.

Next in the Spiral is the genuine desire to follow. This desire stems from a heartfelt desire to follow the leader. This supports the aforementioned notion that some of the most effective and influential leaders are found within the lower echelons of the organization. The genuine desire to follow then enables the follower to seek out change. Seeking out change is taking a proactive role toward change itself, being in control of events and destiny. The typical response to change is usually negative; given people feel a loss of control. Seeking out change turns this reaction into a proactive process of self-destiny selection. Affirmations are created, soon to be fulfilled. Having control over one’s destiny breeds security and feeds upon itself.

The final step involves individual/organizational affirmations coming to fruition. This comes as no surprise to the individual/organization and serves to simply confirm and bolster the faith in the leader, resulting in more banked trust.

As time moves on and such trust is continually banked by repeated Spirals of Success, the maturity and mental health of the individual/organization becomes solid. The art of affecting change may even move dynamically from the leader to the follower where their roles swap. This symbiotic relationship continues to grow, allowing the leadership to move to the most logical position within the organism (large scale or small), where change may best be orchestrated. At this point in the maturity of the organization/organism, power is never a central issue and control is dynamically shared where it is most needed.

Clearly, the above ‘perfect’ model is seldom achieved, due to external factors that may impede the Spiral to succeed. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Political positioning or gamesmanship
  • Cut throat competitiveness
  • Lack of teamwork in favor of self gratification
  • Overall lack of consistency of purpose
  • Lack of mission understanding
  • Lack of vision
  • Lack of faith in the future
  • Too much focus on management activities v. leadership
  • Power imbalances
  • Low individual/organizational self esteem

Leadership = Followership. Again, this is the complete model of leadership, knowing when to do either. Followership, however, must be a desired condition, not a forced one. If one desires to follow another there must be a foundation of trust.

The foundation of trust is built upon the consistency of behavior and communications. Many call this “walking the talk.” When so-called leaders say one thing, then behave in a manner that is inconsistent with their message, the “trust bank” is robbed and will take many time periods to re-build, depending on the magnitude and severity of the inconsistency. Once, however, the “trust bank” is large, it grows upon its interest much like a cash savings account; the greater the bank account balance, the faster it grows. Furthermore, as the “trust bank” becomes larger, it can withstand some inconsistencies, still continuing to grow over time. As the foundation is built and as the “trust bank” continues to grow, the natural leadership model emerges allowing people to be comfortable either leading or following. The trust, therefore, is bi-directional; leaders trusting their followers and followers trusting their leaders.