What is leadership? Why
is it so frightening? I have given both questions considerable thought over the
years since I took my first job as a manager. I think I have answers, but before
I attempt even a preliminary definition of leadership, let me list some of the
reasons why I believe many new managers find the idea of leadership so scary:
They worry that they
cannot live up to the image of leadership that has been created by the popular
They fear having responsibility for the long-term
survival of the team.
They panic at having
to lead people who are older and more experienced than themselves.
They shrink at the idea of exercising authority and
do not wish to be seen by the team as an authority figure.
By discussing the characteristics essential to leadership,
I hope to take some of the fear out of the subject. My intent is to debunk damaging
myths about what it takes to be a good leader, and to describe the qualities good
leaders should possess.
What Is Leadership?
at its simplest, occurs when a person sets the direction and goals for a group
of people and leads members of the group toward those goals. When the leader is
a front-line manager, the group being led is that manager's team. In order to
set goals and propel people toward them, a leader needs to create a vision
of the future, and to have the respect and trust of the team so
that its members will willingly follow him or her to achieve that vision.
is a creative thing, but the essential bedrock on which your vision must be
built is an understanding of the basics of your business. As leader, you must
have answers to such questions as: Who are the team's customers? What does your
team do that is valued by those customers? How do your customers and your organization
measure the performance of your team?
Respect comes to a person who
gets things done. Actions speak louder than words, and achievement speaks louder
than actions. People respect competence and professionalism in a leader.
comes to a person who is honest and open, whose actions match his or her words,
and whose willingness to face difficult issues never flags.
A leader must
be endowed with vision, respect, and trustall lofty attributesbut
a leader must also be ready to perform the many different roles associated with
front-line management. For example, the leader is the person who makes the tough
decisions. The leader creates a community, or culture, within the team. The leader
creates the organization within that community and decides who has authority within
the team. The leader assures the welfare of the staff. The leader provides the
interface between the team and the rest of the organization. The leader is the
figurehead of the team.
Although I address various aspects of these many
different leadership roles throughout this book, this chapter concentrates on
the qualities that underpin good leadership. It also points out a range of common
misconceptions about leadership.
Leadership Myths Exposed
The first common
misconception about leadership is that leaders must "look the part."
The notion that leaders should be in the mold of the comic book hero with the
square jaw, steady gaze, and firm handshake, is complete nonsense. The Golden
Rule of Management tells us that leadership is about what you do and is not about
It is often assumed that leaders must have charisma. Leaders
with charismatic personalities certainly have many advantages over people with
less flamboyant characters, but if you are such a person, you should be aware
of a range of faults that charismatic leaders are prone to have:
Charismatic leaders tend to create personality
cults. Teams can become over-dependent on the leader, the result of which is often
harmful if the leader were to leave.
Charismatic leaders are often poor at delegating.
Charismatic leaders are often poor listeners; they frequently
spend all their time talking.
Charismatic leaders often have poor self-awareness and hence are not aware of
leaders often depend on their personalities to get them out of trouble, so they
are not careful enough to avoid getting into trouble.
Charismatic leaders are often workaholics and may
eventually get tired and make too many mistakes.
Another common myth is that leaders need to rely on the
authority given to them by the organization. Sure, as the boss, you can order
people to do things; but if you are a good leader, you should seldom have to issue
a direct order. If you are doing your job properly, your team should want to follow
A common failing of authoritarian leaders is that they tend to behave
in ways that ensure that nothing is allowed to undermine their authority. Typical
examples of how authoritarian leaders behave follow:
They don't seek advice from the team.
They don't change their mind or reverse a decision
even when it becomes clear that they are wrong.
They delegate very little in order to avoid diluting their
power, and they undermine anyone with delegated authority.
They intentionally recruit inferior staff members
who will never become a threat.
They use fear, uncertainty, and divide-and-conquer strategies as management techniques
to discourage threats to their authority.
There are dozens more characteristics that I could add to the above, but I
will stop at five and leave completion of the list as an exercise for the reader.
The brief list exaggerates characteristics common to authoritarian leaders, but
I think it is worth including because so many of us have a small part of our personality
that worries about someone challenging our authority. Although it is unlikely
that any authoritarian leaders would ever want to read this book, the discussion
helps the rest of us see our borderline behavior for what it is. Whenever we hear
a quiet, insidious voice encouraging us to not recruit the outstanding candidate
or to not reverse a poor decision, we may recall the message and, hopefully, behave
better for it.
The second point in the bulleted list above, concerning
reversing bad decisions, states a management paradox. A phrase culled from
that obscure English dialect called management-speak, "paradox"
describes the not-uncommon situation in which two factors are in direct conflict.
In such a situation, it is desirable to change a bad decision, but it is also
desirable not to keep changing decisions because consistency and stability of
direction are essential for maintaining staff morale. The resolution of this particular
paradox involves ensuring that the basic tenets of the business strategy remain
reasonably constant while allowing tactics to change much more frequently.