Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Headiness of Being the Leader

I've been thinking a lot lately about how difficult, exciting, stressful, exhilarating it must be to be the leader of a company, enterprise, or organization.

For some reason a Lord Acton quote has popped into my mind as I write this post:

"Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely."

How does this relate to my original thought about leadership?

One has only to read the current issue of Fast Company magazine and check out the cover story called "Is Your Boss a Psychopath?" to see some sort of correlation. Which comes first (if at all): the ego involved to start a company or the ego involved later as things get successful?

I realize that there has to be some semblance of confidence for anyone to lead anything. I'm reminded of my basketball playing days, both in high school and in college. It seems for every John Wooden-like coach there were at least an equal number of Bobby Knights. But recently, at least in the world of sports, I've been hearing more about the successes of the Coach K's, the Phil Jacksons, the Bill Belachicks and their effect on the teams ... no, the individuals who make up the teams ... than of the crushing results of the iron fist leaders.

Iron fist leaders who rule by fear and loathing probably can get results quickly, but I can't think of even one leader - at least in modern times - who produced lasting results with that type of leadership.

But what happens in our businesses when the rulers rule by fear - and the fear is so great that no one dares say or do anything? It doesn't seem to matter the size of the organization - even in very small companies the iron fist makes an impact on individuals, teams, families, and even communities, and often the external results (the football field named after the town mogul who donated the land presumably out of the goodness of his heart, but more likely to see his name in lights on Friday nights) somehow justify the means.

How long will we go on accepting this as if we can't do anything about it within organizations? Are our workers bound by the golden handcuffs at the price of their very hearts and souls? What will it take to get leadership to see that it doesn't have to be this way? That people really will do the right thing if given the chance?

Perhaps it's fear that runs the hearts of the leaders ... and the only way they can get beyond their own fear is to control what they think they can control, and that's the way the business is run - their way. As they look for the worst in the workers, that's often what they will find, and they can continue to be right about that.

It's funny, though. It takes exactly the same amount of energy to find the worst in people as it does to find the best. The difference is that the leader has to shift the perception, and often that's the most difficult part. Shifting the leader's perception to ask the question "How is that REALLY working for me?" and to really want to know the answer to that question is often more difficult than continuing down the path that no longer works.

Remember the story of the Emperor's New Clothes? Couple this with the lesson we've been taught as children: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" and you get more and more of the same.

Is there a way to share a dialogue - respectfully and with noble intention - with the emperor about his nakedness in a way that doesn't get the messenger's head chopped off? The challenge will be to get the emperor to realize that there's opportunity for him/her in having that dialogue, regardless of the outcome.

Anyone up for that challenge?


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