Leaders – different from followers?

mae westMae West had a great repertoire of one-liners. One of my favourites is one that I am frequently reminded of when I hear some political and business leaders speak:

“That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

There is real danger inherent in the leadership position that sadly we all often fall into. Perhaps the most powerful drive of people (the social animal that we are) is to be recognised as special and appreciated. The more recognition – the better. This adulation drug comes umbilically attached to the leaders chair and is administered sometimes unknowingly but with dangerous risks of addiction.

One of the dangers for the leader is that we swallow the PR and somehow begin to see ourselves are fundamentally different from the people that we lead – maybe just that little bit better or unique?

After all we are in one of the top chairs and everyone recognises how marvellous you have to be to get there don’t they?

In truth you are unique and special. That is not the problem.

The problem comes if we fail to see the special-ness of those around us: their gifts, strengths, talent and uniqueness. When we see others as not quite as capable, as committed or special as ourselves.

When seeking to lead this can be poison. When seeking to lead wholehearted change it can be a lethal dose.

Despite what many leaders think, people have an almost infallible sixth sense that tells them if the leader sees them as one of the great unwashed.… even if the leader has a well practiced style that conceals this. People are not fooled.

“So what?” you say or maybe even, “There is an element of truth in being different – or I would not be in the position that I am in!”

The ‘so what?’ is this – as you communicate this difference, you give permission for those you lead to pass the buck in your direction. This is fine if it is your responsibility but there is a widespread tendency for people to pass you much more, including a lot that is their responsibility! The result is that they stop engaging their hearts, minds and initiative in quite the same way.

You know how it works….

You need to get an event organised and setup by 7pm (or a presentation client ready, a set of figures collated and correct, a tough repair complete, or …whatever it is that is needed).

You have the team and nearly enough time, information or awareness of the issues to achieve the right result. All you need is everyone’s wholehearted commitment to work on it together. Without this it is easy for there to be loose ends, obstacles that prove too tough, unforeseen issues that blow off course. With commitment, these inevitable events get managed. Without it they get in the way.
It’s not that people don’t want it to work. It’s that they respond to your attitude by expecting you to achieve the result rather than them. The result can be a vicious circle because of course your expectations of them not being quite as smart are now being proven by their behaviour and so it justifies your position (and indeed theirs!).

Leaders seeking commitment in change need to break the circle and this has to start with a real recognition of the good points that everyone has and the uniqueness of their gifts.

There are many different ways to administer an antidote – genuinely useful and observant friends, 360 reviews, effective appraisals, a keen mind that always seeks better answers to less than perfect results and multiple views not just agreement.

But all methods rely on us having a high degree of self-awareness and being open to healthy self-critique. This is tough to achieve unless we can recognise the special qualities in the others that we are leading. We need to continually challenge ourselves on this: to see the uniqueness in those we lead and recognise their contribution to any team success.

Sounds soft? It is not about being soft.

It is about begin clear:

Clear about my responsibility, what I uniquely bring and my commitment to delivery, and then

Clear about others responsibilities, unique contributions and commitment. We need to expect them to live up to their responsibility and identify, acknowledge and appreciate the specialness that they bring to the task.

The outcome needs to be seen as a joint enterprise where we succeed or fail together by bringing our best.

Such realism moves beyond great one-liners to genuine commitment.