What Is Leadership?
By Lee B. Salz
People are often told to "be a leader," but what does that mean? How
do people know how to act as a leader when no one defines it for
them? There is a simple mantra that defines leadership.
other day my nine-year old daughter and two sons (seven and five
years old respectively) were playing with neighborhood friends. Out
of the blue, my two sons came running home upset because the girls
in the group told them they didn't want to play with them. I was
puzzled. Wasn't my daughter also in the group? How could she allow
these girls to tell her younger brothers that they couldn't also
play in the group? Why didn't she defend her brothers?
down with my daughter and asked her about what had occurred. The
bottom-line was that the popular opinion of the group was that the
boys should not play with the girls. However, my daughter
acknowledged that she did not agree with the group's opinion. She
thought it was wrong, but she did not say anything because the
popular feeling was that the boys should leave. At times, my wife
and I talk with our children about being a leader instead of a
follower. Great advice, but if you don't know what leadership is all
about, how can you put it in play? What is leadership?
read many books, articles, and journals on the subject of leadership
and they offer wonderful ideas about being an effective leader.
However, I have not found any that made the following statement.
"Leadership is about having the self-confidence to do what is right
even when it is not popular."
scenario that I saw play out with my daughter reminded me of a
commonplace business occurrence. How often are business people told
to show leadership skills, but not taught what that means? You can
yell to people from the highest mountaintop to be leaders, but if
you don't help them to understand what leadership means, what
ability do they have to change their behavior? How do you help
people to feel confident doing what is right when it is not
necessarily the popular thing to do?
ago, Bud Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, was faced
with declining game attendance. As Commissioner, he was tasked with
reversing the attendance trend. One idea he had was to enact
interleague play where National League and American League teams
play against each other during the season. Historically, the two
leagues only played one another in the World Series. Most baseball
fans were appalled. They considered this move to be blasphemous.
Yet, Bud Selig was un-phased and put the program in place. Today,
baseball attendance is booming and interleague play is a hit. Where
would baseball be today if Bud Selig let the popular perspective
change his decision?
leadership mantra is not just for managers. It is for everyone. I
worked in workplace drug testing for a number of years. Amazingly,
five of every one hundred people who take a drug test, fail it. Do
the math. That's a lot of people. Are these bad people? Or, at some
point in their life, were these people faced with right versus
popular and chose the wrong one? "Come on, we're all doing it. Be
one of us. Join the crowd." Many of these people knew that drugs
were wrong, but elected the easy route of following the popular
opinion. At the moment, popular was made to feel right, but only for
told, I've made this mistake myself. Years ago, when I ran sales for
a mid-sized company, my manager had me terminate the employment of a
sales person (for performance) prematurely. This employee had not
gone through traditional progressive discipline procedures. However,
the COO of the company had decided that this sales person was not
going to be successful in the company and should be let go
immediately. While I agreed that the sales person was not going to
be successful, I disagreed with the timing and the methodology. I
pushed back a little, but not hard enough. I should not have let
popular win over right.
people allow popular to win versus right, too. Imagine a sales
person has been working with a client for three years. He has gotten
to know the people in the account. He knows them personally. Now it
is time for an account review, a periodic meeting on the performance
of the relationship. A manager inserts himself into the process and
informs the sales person of what is going to be done in that
meeting. The sales person listens to the strategy and knows that it
is not right for the account. If anything, it will jeopardize the
relationship and cause the decision-maker to look foolish. However,
the sales person says nothing to the manager because, after all, he
is the boss.
mantra is not about arrogance. It does not operate under the auspice
that you know everything, and thus, your decision is always the
right one. Those of you who are Greek mythology fans would call this
hubris. No one knows everything. However, it is always
easiest to follow the popular direction and not research to form
your own opinion of what is right. In today's information world,
there is no excuse for not taking a few minutes to research
meaningful decisions before making them.
mantra is not an advocation for insubordination. Yes, that sales
person was correct. His manager is the boss. However, managers don't
always have all of the necessary information to make an informed,
educated decision. Managers count on their employees to share with
them, in a diplomatic manner, information that will help them make
the right decision. Few managers try to make decisions without the
counsel of others. However, not enough employees step up and raise
their concerns early in the process. They are masters of
water-cooler speaker. "That will never work. They don't know about
this factor that will cause the project to fail."
Executives have some responsibility for this issue. Employees are
often fearful of repercussion when sharing their thoughts,
particularly when they are not consistent with the mainstream
feeling (a.k.a. not the popular opinion). "Rather than get rebuked,
I'll keep my mouth shut."
Companies need to create a culture where it is not only acceptable,
but encouraged, for employees to raise their hand before the ship
hits the iceberg. Growth comes from people challenging the status
quo and feeling confident that they can present ideas, in
contradiction to the popular, without retribution. At the same time,
companies should show intolerance for those who fail to raise their
hand, but say, "Yup, I knew we would sink when we hit the iceberg. I
knew it all along."
"ivory-tower" is famous, or is it infamous, for making decisions
without having all of the most relevant information to do so
prudently. The "ivory tower" is called a tower because of the gap
between executives and employees. That gap might as well be an ocean
if employees are not empowered to share what they feel is right when
it is not popular. If it is culturally encouraged for employees to
participate in decision-making, data gathering, the company is
better positioned to be successful. Oftentimes, the best ideas are
found by talking with those who do the work every day. People need
to feel empowered to share what they feel is right. Some refer to
this as "no sacred cows."
recently started a new company and I've had so many people tell me
what a great job I'm doing. "This idea is brilliant!" However, I'm
not looking for a pat on the back, but rather a kick in the pants.
The easy thing to do is to tell me that my idea is great. However,
I'd much prefer those who tell me what can be better. Tell me you
see an iceberg before I hit it.
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