What is Leadership?
“May I stress the need for courageous, intelligent, and dedicated leadership… Leaders of sound integrity. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with justice. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
What is leadership? There’s so many takes on it. It is a vague concept. But I think most of us know what it looks like when we experience good leadership. Here’s a story:
Many years ago I started working at a top corporation as a meeting minute taker. A meeting minute taker is the person in charge of taking notes during meetings and later sending them to the team members. It’s not as easy as it sounds of course. You need to listen very carefully to what is being discussed. You must document what is being said. Are there any important decisions being made? Are there any action items being assigned? An excellent minute taker will make sure to truly follow and understand what is being said, and interrupt where warranted to clarify what seems vague or left unclear.
And this is what I did. I did my best to clearly document meetings and often contacted some participants (post meeting) when I felt I had a gap in my documenting. Then I sent such minutes to all the participants. But this particular meeting I’m about to tell you was a bit different. It had many managers and some directors involved. I felt nervous at times. My manager was the meeting facilitator. Perhaps because of the presence of many high-ranked managers, we didn’t establish ground rules from the onset. After all, setting rules makes some people uncomfortable (and some find it childish). Unfortunately because of this, the first week many participants were absent.
a) Setting Boundaries/Rules
So we then spent the next couple days of the meeting setting some ground rules along with the participants. One of which the team decided was: to always show up on time. One morning after several weeks of being late or not showing up, a top manager spoke up. He said he didn’t want to be late anymore. He looked at me and told me out loud that he wanted me to hold him accountable the next time he was late or didn’t show up: “Can you bring this up the next time I’m late?” I said yes. Lo and behold, after one meeting he showed up late. So I respectfully mentioned it. Big mistake?
At the end of the meeting my direct manager set me aside, and with his face turned red yelled at me. He said: “Who do you think you are? Do you know what you just did? That was a top manager of this company! You never question them!” My young and naive self, uncomfortable to say the least, scrambled and said: “He specifically asked me to.” After that, I remember the yelling intensified and me saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry until he went away. So you might be wondering, what does this have to do with leadership?
Could I have handled the situation differently? Perhaps talking to the top manager about him being late in private before hand? Potentially so. Do you think my manager could have approached me more respectfully? But this isn’t quite about that. Let’s take a wider view of the missed opportunity for what could have been great leadership.
Rules are very important. Not just ground rules or meeting rules, but rules. They are meant to guide us (much like values) when things get uncertain. And perhaps here’s one of the insights to great leadership—leaders set boundaries. Leaders do this by setting rules, following rules, and knowing when it is acceptable to break them. But there’s also a problem to this. What if everyone thinks they can justify breaking the rules? Are there rules about breaking rules? Aside from his abusive approach, did my manager know that the top manager was breaking the rules justifiably? Or was he just angry that I held an authority accountable?
Rules aren’t meant to be broken. Not lightly. Especially not as anyone sees fit. Rules are established because people agree we need them to function properly. To work together effectively. The paradox is that eventually some rules do evolve. Boundaries change when they no longer serve their purpose. Great leadership is in respecting rules and recognizing when some need to change.
b) Seeing the Big Picture
Leadership is perhaps even better understood by what it aims to accomplish. It’s not individual goals. Leadership is experienced when work is done for the greater good, for something bigger than ourselves. Effective leaders and teams always work for a vision. And a great vision has a particularity, it is energizing and contagious. It’s like potential energy. It makes everyone excited, focused, and committed.
Imagine the top manager realizing this was an opportunity to send everyone a powerful message. Imagine if he had risen to the occasion, apologized, and said that in order to solve what currently was the biggest engineering problem we needed to honor our commitments. And to do that we all needed to be there. What an example he could have set.
Leadership isn’t top management or entry level workers. Here’s the thing: leadership is not personally working on something bigger than ourselves—but in leading everyone else to do so as well. How do we get to see the big picture? I’d like to think about who the work is for (and why). It’s never about us. Think about how the product or service, the field, the science, the industry, or humanity will truly benefit from the ongoing work. Not firefighting, but long-term solutions. I remember back then, everyone went quiet. The top manager said nothing. He looked down, a bit embarrassed. The meeting continued like nothing was said.
c) Model Behavior
Finally, how do you lead others to work on something greater than themselves? Do leaders set priorities? Do they respect other peoples time? Are they empathetic? Do leaders accept blame for mistakes or short comings? I believe leadership is not one single person but in the collective. It’s a synchronized and committed team or organization leading and being led. And what does that mean? It means you empower others through example, and so do they.
What did my direct manager gain by screaming at me at the end of the meeting? I felt completely confused. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it taught me a lot about what leadership is not. Great leaders model behavior. They set the standard of how to be and what to do. I think both managers confused leadership with hierarchy and power over commitment. True leadership is actually vulnerable. It takes guts to put yourself out there, to make mistakes and admit to them. But that’s what great leadership is. This is one of the principles of continuous improvement. In C.I, the aim is to normalize the surfacing of problems.
Leadership will always be a bit of a mystery. It’s like an emergent property when one or more people adopt a series of positive behaviors. To achieve this, we need to foster a structure with clear rules or boundaries. We must work (believe) on something bigger than ourselves, and finally, model positive behavior. I eventually moved to another department. It wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. Nothing is. But there we were able to work better because the manager was more of a leader and less of a boss. Who do you want to be as you move up in life? Will you lead, teach, and inspire?
“Without a vision the people perish, but without courage dreams die.” -Rosa Parks
Juan F. Diaz
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