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Why Is Leadership So Frightening?

by Nic Peeling

Adapted from Dr. Peeling's Principles of Management. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

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 culture.
  • 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?

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.

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.

Trust 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 trust—all lofty attributes—but 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 appearances.

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 their limitations.
  • Charismatic 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 you.

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.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Dr. Peeling's Principles of Management [ISBN:0-932633-54-4] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2003 by Nic Peeling. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/dp.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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