Mar 042003

The subject of leadership came up on an online forum today. After reading a lively dialogue, I came upon this bit of wisdom:

“a leader has to have the courage to say ‘this far, no further’ and be willing to act when the cause is just and it is the right thing to do.”

Well, of course a leader has to have courage, of course a leader has to be willing to act. We can take that as a given. I think the point that’s missing here is the distinction between two meanings of “leader.” It’s an important distinction and the second meaning is usually forgotten.

In one sense (and the most popular sense) the “leader” is at best:

  • the person “at the front,”
  • the role who takes action,
  • the one who takes the ideas of the group and makes them happen.

At its worst, this kind of leadership is:

  • the person “on top,”
  • the role in control,
  • the one who decides what to do and then does it (or tells everyone what to do)

In another sense (and the meaning that many miss) a “leader” is, at their best:

  • the coordinator, the one who brings dissenting voices together fairly,
  • the one who enables the group to achieve their own goals through their own efforts,
  • the one who brings the people together and makes them far stronger than any individual could ever be.

…and at their worst:

  • the bureaucrat,
  • the endless debater,
  • the do-nothing.

If you focus only on the worst ways that people can exercise these two types of leadership, you’ll hear a lot of what the two factions are shouting at each other. Those who are afraid of a domineering dictator will talk about “fairness” and “not limiting options.” Those who don’t want a do-nothing bureaucrat will talk about “action” and “courage to make tough choices.”Many people forget about these two meanings of “leadership” and focus only on the first meaning, the Person In Charge. If he’s a good leader, he’ll be at the front of the action, he’ll make things happen, he’ll take our ideas and see them through. And why not think this way? We have our lives to live, our jobs to do, we’re busy… we want the Guy In Charge to take care of it so we don’t have to worry about it. That’s why he’s the leader and we’re not, right?

Here’s the problem: a leader cannot do it all on their own. The quarterback cannot win the big game without his teammates. The CEO can’t produce her company’s widgets without the folks on the factory floor. The General cannot fight the war without the troops.

The “Guy In Charge” is an illusion.

There cannot really be a Guy in Charge unless everyone under him gives up their own free will. Unless the rest of the football team blindly does whatever the quarterback says. Unless the workers decide they don’t care about their home lives and work whenever the CEO tells them to. Unless the platoons stop reporting enemy positions and go wherever the General tells them, even if it’s to attack a lump of rock. Unless the Guy In Charge is in charge of a bunch of puppets.

We want to believe in the Guy In Charge because we don’t take responsibility for the results ourselves. We don’t want to be responsible if we lose the big game, don’t sell enough widgets, don’t win the battle. Let the Guy In Charge be responsible for that!

And that brings us to the second meaning of leadership — the person who brings the group together, who overcomes that fear of responsibility. Who gets the rest of the football team to work together. Who gives her employees what they need in order to do their best work in the factory. Who coordinates all the intel and recon reports from the troops, and ensures that they can all cover each other.

The first kind of leader wants to limit options, in order to achieve more control, because they think that will enable them to “get the job done” all by themselves.
The second kind of leader wants to find more options, in order to make their group as effective as possible, because the leader realizes that they could never have enough control to be able “get the job done” by themselves.

I’ve played on teams with a star player who did all the work. Sometimes we won a game or two when our star player carried the game. And I’ve played on teams where our leader worked for us. When our leader gave us what we needed in order to be an effective team. We won a lot — and we were proud of ourselves.

Which kind of leader do you want?

Your thoughts?