There are so many inspirational quotes and articles written about leadership, and the difference between a boss and leader. And although many of these articles are great, I get the feeling that often times “leadership” is used as a sexy buzz word or concept, with little reality behind it. What actually happens in everyday life at work for most of us? Do we actually see inspirational leaders where we work, or are we experiencing a super-competitive and many times ruthless “get ahead or be stepped on” environment?
Even if there is an explosion of information about leadership – seminars, TED talks, articles, et cetera – I don’t see a commensurate rise in leaders or even good bosses/managers in reality. Like most things on social media, we have created an environment of smoke and mirrors, where we talk the talk, but not really walk the walk. It has become more about creating and sustaining an image than it is about creating sustainable working relationships, or dare I say, real camaraderie in the work place.
Is “leadership” now just another shiny status to chase for feeling validated or popular, like being a “star” or an “influencer?” Whatever happened to putting in the hard work, learning more, trying to get along better? It’s the genuine self-check that I see lacking – you are responsible to become better because you want to be better for yourself and because it’s the right thing to do, not for others’ recognition. Sure, recognition is great but what is its value if it’s not coming from a place of reality?
Even though “leadership” usually has a positive connotation, bad leaders do exist. They are leaders in the sense that many people follow their direction and even admire them. As human nature will have it and plenty of examples in history showed it, negative ideas can catch on sometimes faster than good ones. Popularity is not a good measure of leadership. The word “influencer” has been thrown around quite a bit in today’s world and many young people aspire to be that. But I see it as just a flash in the pan, without much substance behind it. We measure the “followers” but are unaware of the non-follower numbers. Of course, as a marketer, I see the value of an “influencer” to a business trying to promote their products or services, but on an existential level, I guess, I can’t help but see the shallow and transitory essence of such “personalities.”
True leaders are not a common occurrence. It’s been argued that most leaders have some innate qualities, while they can improve with conscious effort and practice. We all can and should strive to be better, to be more aware of how to work well with others, and find ways to get acceptance/support for our ideas rather than impose them on others. The reality is that not everyone will be a leader on a large scale and in an uber-inspirational way like Gandhi or Mandela, but they can try to become good bosses, manager, or even leaders.
As far I see it, there are several traits and skills that someone in a position of power should have:
- Vision – ability to see the big picture and imagine the possibilities
- Realism – ability to know the available resources and constraints
- Resourcefulness – ability to find resource to remove obstacles
- Knowledge – a solid education and experience, along with proof of success in his/her field
- Communication skills – ability to communicate the vision to her/his team
- Empathy – How can you lead people if you don’t understand them? Also, what we should all strive to do is to do our jobs at the best of our abilities in order to improve the lives of people around us.
- Confidence – ability to hire the right people and confidence to allow them to do their jobs
- Innovative spirit – ability to see things from a different and resourceful perspective
- Motivational ability – and by this I don’t mean fake cheerleader drills. This is more about showing professional and personal respect towards employees and colleagues. It’s about being interested in developing your employees. It’s about setting a good example, having strong ethical values, and living them.
- ROI mindset – ability to facilitate and drive positive results for the company served, as well as its people.
On the flip side, here are some signs of a bad boss/manager/leader:
- Misappropriates ideas, gives credit where it’s due, while giving false credit to “pet” employees.
- Surrounds him/herself with “yes” men/women and distances herself/himself from anyone who questions his/her decisions.
- Acts charming on the surface, but ruthless in private.
- Does anything to create and maintain a glowing image of him/herself, while having others make the unpopular decisions for him/her.
- Undermines others in order to gain power.
- Micro-manages employees.
I recently watched a video about bullying in the work place by psychopathic boss figures. The video contained interesting scientific information about the double-digit impact that a mere 1% of such bosses have on business in Australia and the UK. Although the impact on the businesses is staggering, the scarier (and hard-to-measure) impact is on the individual workers’ lives. It is scary how easy it is for a bad boss to destroy someone’s years of hard work and dedication, reputation, and even career. Some might say the blame cannot be attributed to one person alone. I agree. The enablers and supporters of such behavior are also to blame. However, it is the person in a position of power who sets the tone for all the others. This type of leadership is “toxic” not only to the individual employee who most often leave the company, but to the company itself in the long run.
Succeeding in climbing the corporate ladder doesn’t make one a leader, much less a good one. Good leaders don’t use manipulation but inspiration to gain traction for their ideas. Good leadership means doing the right thing for the right reasons, and for the greater good. It means succeeding without the help of unethical subterfuge, without having to step on others. Being a good leader doesn’t mean you’re always right, but that you are humble enough to acknowledge that you are human, and that you can learn something from the people around you – especially if you hire competent individuals. Being a good leader means having a high quality of expertise, as well as empathy.
Leadership needs to be real, genuine, and not just a mask disguising an individual’s thirst for personal power. Good leaders seek and see win-win solutions. There is a lot of talk about “toxic” people in the work place, often associating the attribute with someone who is complaining at work. I find this to be a shallow interpretation of reality, and often a sing of “head-in-the-sand” approach to business. Although some people are complaining just to create drama or to make themselves feel important, I believe that it’s critical to be realistic. Things in a work place are never perfect, because humans are not perfect. Being able to foresee pitfalls allows you to be prepared to overcome them. So, when you look around your company, be sure you make the distinction between a truly “negative” person and a problem-solver. Going back to leadership, the really dangerous “toxic” people are the individuals in positions of power who are there for the wrong reasons, who can damage a company from the inside and with long-term repercussions.
It seems to me that we have to sit back and take a look at our values, and at what values or behavior we reward – at home and at work. I feel there is a dire need for “real” – real people, real questions, real answers, and hopefully real solutions.
Leadership is not just a pretty buzz word. One can certainly aspire to be a leader, but it should be driven by a desire for self-improvement, and a dedication to a higher and positive cause. Perhaps the thing to do is pull back from the whirlwind of information about leadership and practice some introspection. Let’s pause and reflect on our own values and motivations. Are we doing thing for the right reasons, are we acting on ethical moral values in consistent manner? Are we falling in the trap of chasing a shiny image for ourselves at someone else’s expense, or are we dedicated to genuine self-improvement and growth as humans and as professionals?