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LEADERSHIP: Taking the "Lead" Out of Leadership

mikeharringtonwebsiteI recently took a personality test that identified me as an ‘inspirer.’ Now this wasn’t a test that pops on your Facebook page occasionally; it was a legitimate tool I was considering using for a training on leading without authority. A couple of days prior to this, I had received a call from a client of ours. They asked me if I would be willing to submit a proposal for a presentation that would teach people different ways to lead even when they have no legitimate authority to do so.

The request got me thinking.  What is it that causes someone to become a leader? Does it really have anything to do with a person’s authority level?  Can anyone be a leader?  We obviously know there are all types of leaders, but can anyone truly lead? And what is it that causes some to fail miserable at this task. Ah ha, maybe that’s the answer right there, they see it as a task – a job responsibility

281310-31529-59What is Leadership?
So let’s get to the topic at hand – ‘lead’ in leadership (and I mean the metal, not the verb). It is my belief that the concept of leading has become stale in recent years, and that old-style leadership tactics such as dominance, or being solely driven by results, while maintaining an untouchable façade, no longer produces the desired outcome with the current workforce, nor will it work in future. In short, leadership is heavy.

It’s seen as a responsibility on a job description and for many it reads as such, ‘must lead the efforts of the department…’  But what does that mean? In this case it simply means to head up or organize – see what I mean by heavy.  In all actuality though, if I asked you to think about someone you considered to be a great leader and to write the characteristics down that made the person a great leader, I bet it wouldn’t consist of mundane tasks at all.  It’s not hard to see that there is a disconnect between the conceptual idea of ‘leader’ and the duties one performs as part of the job description.  The true act of leading is about convincing others that you are the right person for them to follow.

Building on that thought, we must agree that there is a difference between a supervisor or manager and a leader.  While the supervisor or manager leads by title, it is the latter that speaks to character. Character, which Zenger and Folkman in The Extraordinary Leader, list as one of the five critical traits of a leader, is the linchpin in this formula.  Without character, leadership simply becomes a verb – ‘to lead.’  Without character, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have just been the guy at the head of the line, and John F. Kennedy would merely have been number 35.

There was much more to these two men that caused them to be considered leaders of their time.

The Weight of Lead-filled Leadership
imageMuch like a general in an army, a ‘command and control’ style of leading simply provides a short-term jolt to productivity and minimally impacts morale, which is a longer driver of commitment and dedication. For many, this type of rough-and-ready leadership still exists today; however, I’d like to suggest that the new workforce is demanding more from its leaders.

The newer generations in the workforce require that leaders must be willing to flex their style to the needs of the individuals they lead. In our communications training we call this “baiting the hook to suit the fish.” Many would say it’s common sense that you use different kinds of bait depending on the type of fish you want to catch, so is it farfetched to believe that you might use different styles of leadership for different types of employees?

In today’s work environment the heavy style of leadership – one that is purely results driven and that doesn’t believe in all that ‘touchy feely stuff’ – has begun to take a toll on employees. People are less committed to their employers now than ever before, and a majority has lost trust in the leadership of their organization.  Our focus must now be on how to become the leader that our employees need us to be.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to leading others.  It can be done a number of different ways, and with a number of different tactics, but one thing is for certain, you must believe in the people you are leading, otherwise you’re simple the “lead” that’s slowing them down.

Part two of this series ‘How to Get the Lead out of Your Leadership Balloon” will discuss the different characteristics a leader must possess no matter what position they hold within an organization.

In the meantime, I invite you to engage yourself in the conversation and share your leadership thoughts. What leaders have influenced you along the way, and what was it about them that captivated you?


  • I really enjoyed your article. It’s a concept to which I was introduced about 6 years ago, and in which I greatly believe. In my opinion the key point is “you must believe in the people you are leading.” That is dead-on, and if you do not believe in them, chances are they’re smart enough to know it.

    I’ve been greatly inspired by a few leaders I worked with at a small biotech. Their common traits were that they were tough, they were fair, they encouraged you to share your ideas (right or wrong), they acted on what they heard instead of listening then just doing what they initially wanted to do, and they left conflict in the meetings where it occurred. By doing those things they demonstrated their respect for those they led, and also insisted on accountability and innovative thinking.

  • I could talk all day about what it has looked like to me as I experienced it and what I think it is to exhibit it. I’ll try bullet pointing so as not to babble:

    I’ve always been moved by the part in the Pearl Harbor movie when President Roosevelt stands up from his wheel chair and tells his group “Don’t tell me what cannot be done!”

    Now that’s old school to an extent, leading by example but this was done with emotion and under great duress. He didn’t lead by example by showing someone how to cut widgets, but he physically did the impossible to shut up the pessimists!!!

    Decision making – when faced with the big problem, and the entire group has voiced opinions, and the decision transcends department responsibilities -it has an impact on the staff, the company, the customer etc, – it’s an executive decision no one wants to touch actually deciding on that one with a 30 foot stick – well, I sure like to think that sometimes people appreciate that – I know I did in the past when it wasn’t me.

    Holding people to their potential, challenging them to meet/beat it, and supporting them get there is huge. Coming to work on time, being cooperative, and doing what is asked of you is what is expected, that is the bare minimum (“15 pieces of flare” – have you gotten Deb to watch this yet?). Leadership is challenging and supporting people to not just “not be a problem” – but to be great! My mentor did this for me, I always felt I worked to a high level of achievement, and if it wasn’t my best (but still pretty good) – I might have rationalized “well that’s still better than what half of these people are doing! (I was young!)” He would still say calmly, I know you can do better. It always inspired me to do so.

    Communication and Emotional support – specific, sincere, built on helping people to win and get it right is leadership, not pointing out the negative and being general with praise or critique.

    Leadership as far as setting the example to me is poise in challenging situations. Whether on the spot with a customer, or in a meeting in which there is fighting, or when being engaged by another or just witnessing it – the ability to remain calm, give advice, help those in that situation through it to successful solution and also diffusing the stress, emotions, etc – or by them coming to you for help in a sitch like that and you can guide them with advice – that is powerful stuff. Powerful stuff is what makes a leader, may people are not able to describe it or quantify it, because it means different things to so many.

    Bottomline – it is influence over authority. You have not been led if you have been told to do something. You have been led if through conversation and direction you were inspired/motivated to find a solution and came up with it – and especially if it was a stretch for you. I always have the authority to tell people what to do, but when I am able to help them see what the solution/approach/etc is by talking with them and they decide to do it – that feels successful.

    I am babbling, I’ll write in again on your part 2

  • One can list the characteristics of leaders, qualities like good problem solver, inspirational, good listener, good communicator, delegator etc. but can such traits or characteristics be taught? Can a leader learn to apply different qualities for different situations? Is it the application of and understanding of one’s authority in different settings that makes the leader? (great, knowledgeable, or a failure ?) We can analyze classic leaders and determine if they adopted different methods (eg. Nixon, JFK, Martin Luther King, FDR, Truman). Doesn’t the “best” of leaders trust themselves, their vision and present their wants, to staff and others in a honest open way. Aren’t their views and approaches well thoughtout, and researched, even when inspired, and creative.

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