Matters Column

Where have all the leaders gone? Look in the mirror

April 11, 2014
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Our world needs strong, unwavering leadership more than ever. 

Parents want to be their children’s friends rather than their spiritual and emotional leaders. People overlook critical issues within their relationships, preferring to avoid confrontation and resolution by staying away from each other or being too busy to talk. Partisan politicians are more committed to identifying who is at fault than recognizing the problems and acting to resolve them.  

Is it possible (or even worthwhile) to differentiate “management” from “leadership”? I sometimes fear that our leaders have taken leave — or are, at least, staying so far below the radar screen (and out of fire) that their effectiveness may be compromised. 

If that is the case, where have the leaders gone — and how can we bring them back?  

If someone could develop a “one size fits all” leadership style that was guaranteed to produce positive results, they would make a fortune. We all bring unique and individual characteristics to the leadership party so such an approach could not work. To maximize results we must identify and accentuate strengths, meld them into the fabric and culture of our workplace, then find ways to make up for our inevitable weaknesses.  

While this might prove to be a big challenge, several consistent differences between strong leaders and those who wish they could lead would include:

  • Leaders who struggle to gain respect often “deliver” news as being “from management” rather than “owning it.” They seek credit for things that “go right” while assigning blame for things that “go wrong.”
  • True leaders leave their reservations about communications in the meeting room — expressing opinions and concerns behind closed doors — then take ownership for the news they deliver. They also tend to “own” their department’s failures while deferring the ownership of success to others.
  • Leaders who struggle to make a difference often wait for direction and guidance (so they do not do something that might be “wrong”), then openly express resentment when excluded from the decision-making process. They seek recognition but avoid the ownership of failure, yet the absence of their input prevents them from claiming the fruits of success.
  • Strong leaders make decisions based on the information they have at their disposal (recognizing that if the information changes, so might their decision). They then take action, guiding employees towards the accomplishment of a goal and informing top management (not necessarily seeking permission) of their progress.
  • Ineffective leaders tend to ask, “Why am I not part of the management team?” Strong leaders step forward to make themselves an invaluable part of the team by learning as much about the organization as possible and leveraging this knowledge to make significant, profitable decisions.

While managers are often appointed, promoted or anointed, leaders assume responsibility through their actions and gain credibility through an honest and unwavering expression of their character. A manager may assign blame; a leader assumes it. A manager often deflects criticism; a leader addresses it. A manager can lead but tends to focus on how things “must be done” rather than on what “must be accomplished.” Putting his or her own needs above those of others, a manager often creates a sense of “having to do work” through fear of the consequences rather than creating an environment that encourages others to perform.

Leaders typically demonstrate the ability to influence by example to gain the support of others who choose to follow. They pull others up while rising to the top rather than climbing on top of them as if they were rungs on a ladder. Leaders understand their “audience” when speaking or communicating, incorporating the needs and desires of the group into the message delivered and the results expected. 

Leaders recognize there is no limit to how much can be accomplished if they do not care who receives the credit for the work being done. Further, great leaders put more effort into selling than they do into telling — into securing “buy-in” and sharing ownership than they do making excuses or assigning blame. They tend to recognize that people (both in the workplace and within society) contribute more if they want to do something than if they have to do something.

Our region needs confident, competent leaders willing to take risks and grow from their consequences. We need fair and honest individuals willing to lead by example rather than by edict — those who seek to motivate rather than intimidate. 

Are you a part of the solution or are you a major part of the problem? Do you anticipate “what might happen” and prepare for it, or react to “what has happened” by blaming others rather than accepting the consequences? Do your actions inspire others to action or encourage them to conspire against you? 

A society that expects others to “do as I say rather than as I do” is one that may “get by” but it will rarely thrive.

Where have the leaders gone? Look in the mirror. We all lead someone or something, be it a business, a family or simply our own existence. Let your intentional actions reflect positively upon someone else as you fulfill your destiny. 

When individuals receive the tools with which to work (education, knowledge, mentoring) and the environment in which to operate (honest, open, accepting and forgiving) with leadership that encourages growth, there will be no limit to the possibilities.  

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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