Lessons in New Leadership
There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders and potential leaders. Are leaders students of leadership or do they just become? Is leadership an inborn quality or can it be learned? Leaders are certainly those whose style and understanding meet the needs of their followers, followers whose needs are fulfilled by a particular leadership style. Perhaps one style of leadership is needed to lead a congregation in a quest for spiritual fulfillment, while another style of leadership is needed to strategize a peacekeeping mission. Leadership is both an inborn quality and something that can be learned. What it is not, or should not be, is a corrupt attempt to control other people.
Today’s leadership crisis may be the result of simply not understanding the many philosophies of leadership. Everyone has his or her own fix on leadership as is obvious by the many publications defining those fixes, labeled Entrepreneurial, Visionary, Democratic, Situational, Contemporary, Transactional, Citizen Charismatic, Moral, Servant…. The titles alone define the styles.
New leadership styles are, however, being adopted by more than a few corporations. In a piece titled “The 9 Faces of Leadership” in the February 1998 issue of Fast Company, author/publisher Heath Row defines the rating criteria FedEx uses to determine who has the attributes of a leader who exemplifies today’s kinder and gentler practices.
- individual consideration
- intellectual stimulation
- respect for others
Intuition, social skills, and resiliency are other characteristics of the new leadership. I don’t think any new leader could have reached a level of leadership without overcoming adversity. It’s a fact of life. And overcoming adversity results in self-confidence and, perhaps, compassion.
The definitions of leader go on ad infinitum. Leaders have power; they give away their power. Leaders are disconnected from those who follow them; they are communicators. The play of opposites goes back and forth like a tennis ball in a heated match. Perhaps leaders are all those things. But what leaders must have are followers. The title leader depends on the needs and wants of the followers who bestow the title on an individual. What motivates people to follow someone is based on personal issues.
I could not follow a leader who believes in hierarchical leadership. I believe many women have the potential to be great leaders because of their more gentle, knowing spirits; I find many in corporate America who follow a very hierarchical methodology. I think it is imperative my leader be a person of high scruples and morals; I liked Bill Clinton in spite of his shortcomings. I prefer a gentle leader; I admired Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Ollie North for their ability to rebel-rouse or break the rules. Obviously, defining leaders and leadership can be an exercise in dichotomy.
In the article “In My Humble Opinion: How do we understand leadership? Badly. No, Stupidly” in Fast Company, Harriet Rubin says “You can’t really know something until you have personally experienced that something.” To experience leadership first hand, she attended a Shakespeare workshop where she played the role of Richard III. She learned that a leader must focus on other people. Potential followers need all of the leader’s attention. They need to be heard and understood.
Learning to understand leaders can be something as effective as putting oneself into a leader’s shoes, if only imaginatively. What a powerful self-teaching tool that becomes. It can intuitively give one great insight into another person, specifically a leader.
I once worked for a corporate vice president not known for his fairness, kindness, or gentleness, but he was powerful. One day this VP glared at me and sneeringly said, “I think you are insecure.” Knowing I was about to get the ax, I put on my most serious poker face and replied, “Are you so secure you can point out the insecure?” That gave him a moment of pause. He spent the next 10 years treating me with the highest respect; he became one of the fairest, kindest, most gentle and gentlemanly bosses I have ever had, and we remained buddies for years thereafter. I knew he had weaknesses, and he was unafraid of my knowing. He trusted me. I trusted him. He didn’t have to be self-confident in every area of his life. Trustworthiness is another requirement of a good leader… and a good follower. A little weakness might be somewhat attractive simply because it shows the leader as a person with some human foibles. Otherwise, we’d call them gods.
The moral to this story is that any leader is not only one kind of leader; characteristics are not necessarily cast in stone. People are inconsistent enough in their behaviors that they may have more than one label.
Women as new leaders
Women have their own leadership stories and styles. The main difference in the way women now lead is the way they interact. In a pioneer Harvard Business Review article (Nov.-Dec. 1990) entitled “Ways Women Lead,” Judy B. Rosener says that women offer others the opportunity to become part of the organization rather than hold themselves above others, as has often been the case in traditional hierarchical leadership.
New leaders are more inclined to make others feel important. They want their input. New leaders use their social skills. They tend to be genuine. Words that often come up when reading about new leadership are sharing, nurturing, guiding, enhancing, and enthusiasm. They also have survival skills. One of those survival skills is shared information. Historically, leaders felt more powerful by holding on to information, feeling that it gave them power over others. Now, however, even the long established leader seems to be hopping on this new bandwagon. Could that be because it is what their followers are demanding?
Women, particularly, had a task of gargantuan proportions-to enter into the business culture and, ultimately, into leadership. They are well on their way. However, because our women in leadership are leaving corporate America, the next great task is to change the behaviors of some of the old hard-liners by helping them understand how important diversity is in the boardrooms. Women are getting really irritated about glass ceilings and other short changes because they’ve already been to the fair. Unlike Rosy the Riveter, they ain’t goin’ back home this time!
Recently, JoAnn Hackos discussed with me how many really talented women in similar situations are leaving business. But they aren’t going home to tend the babies as has been often quoted as their reason for leaving. They are opening their own businesses or going to women-owned businesses where their leadership talents are recognized and rewarded.
When asked when it was she knew she was a leader, JoAnn responded, “When I was in third grade!” She told a story about writing a play and then, very confidently, presenting it at her school. It wasn’t until 1979, however, that she first directed her leadership abilities into self-employment. In 1987, Inc 500 awarded her entrepreneurial talents and cited her in their publication.
I also talked with Ginny Redish. Ginny said she expressed her leadership strengths through mentoring others, a skill she learned at her mother’s knee. Her mom had been involved in the PTA, Girl Scouts, and so on. I have been the recipient of Ginny’s generosity of time, interest, information, and spirit for an earlier interview and can vouch for Ginny’s mentoring interest.
Ginny explained how important it was for women to develop a sense of self-esteem, which could certainly be aided by finding a mentor, one who could help develop a women’s better qualities. Ginny felt a leader should be interested in guiding the development of that important self-esteem.
When asked what she learned from her failures, she stated, “I try to hear better. Listen, yes, but really try to hear what is being said, hearing real messages.” Ginny felt her biggest failures happened when she didn’t hear the real message being conveyed, when she didn’t get the signals. She felt she could have helped more people if she had been better able to hear the actual rather than the literal.
Becoming New Leaders
To understand where we want to go, we need to understand where we have been. Once again, Harriet Rubin asks, “How do we understand leadership? Badly. No, stupidly.” She writes, “We mythologize leaders or criticize them. It’s time to start empathizing with leaders-to view them as if we were looking in the mirror, as if we were down on our knees and up against the knife. We ask our leader to be kinder and nobler… But what if we took the first step? … Leaders are what we ask them to be.”
So, first we must understand the concept of leadership and perhaps amend it to be something less demagogical. I once overheard a comment regarding our inability to find leaders who fit the requirements of high political offices. The suggestion was made that, perhaps, we needed to lower the requirements of the office to fit people rather than try to raise people to an impossible ideal. We would certainly be less disappointed in our leadership and, perhaps, better able to deal with issues presented to us.
Peter Drucker’s work in Management Challenges for the 21st Century (Harper Business, 1999) is cited in the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management’s newsletter. Drucker states “we must learn to lead and manage people in a new way…. Companies will have to learn to look at employees as assets to be valued, rather than as costs to be expensed.” He also says that we have to manage people as though they were “volunteers,” challenging them and offering an enriched work and learning environment and a place where they are part of the mission. This, apparently, is how Mr. Drucker sees what leadership must offer in the future if leaders are to have followers. He doesn’t think managers are necessarily leaders; managers are merely performing a job.
So how does one improve one’s leadership capabilities? We know trust is of paramount importance, trust in one’s leadership and trust in one’s own followership. One must be able to implicitly trust those one follows regardless of their style. One must behave in a manner that elicits trust, that is, through honesty, integrity, knowledge, critical thinking, respect for self and others, listening, discipline, evaluation, compromise, humanity, trustworthiness, forward thinking, vision, motivation, and perhaps, some good old common sense. One must be a person who holds those characteristics dear.
I now understand why some leaders repel me and some engage me. I understand the characteristics that I find valuable, and it allows me to make better decisions even in followership, a role I find perfectly comfortable.
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