The lessons leaders just don't learn

leadership Nov 20, 2022

The leadership model of charisma, strength, and confidence is the picture postcard image of a great leader. But history shows us that it's not outstanding leadership but a bad case of hubris, pig-headedness, stubbornness and inability to listen.

It seems that the longer a leader is in a position of power, the more they emulate this model until it's too late.

A leader requires self-esteem, which means they have the competence and moral fibre to lead. But without the ability to listen, especially to the voices of doubt and disagreement, they seem to develop an arrogance that they find hard to set aside.

Churchill had learned the lessons by the time he was appointed PM and led Britain to victory over the Nazis. By his admission, he certainly did not show outstanding leadership in World War 1, especially at Gallipoli. He later wrote, "I seem to have been too ready to undertake tasks which were hazardous or even forlorn", acknowledging his pig-headedness, his stubborn attachment to his point of view, coupled with a can-do attitude that verged on the hubristic, that led him to ignore, discount and manipulate vital data.

So what should today's leaders learn from their predecessor's political and corporate mistakes?

The biggest realisation is the distinction between being a leader and delivering the function of leadership. It is about creating conditions where others can excel!

How many leaders can you name who excel in that versus leaders who excel in bigging up themselves? The former kind of leader is sure as hell not newsworthy because they don't create drama. They don't make it personal. They are more concerned with the achievements of their people that taking the credit themselves. They are more committed to achieving the goal than the goal being achieved their way.

Outstanding leaders have the vision to keep people focused. They invite dialogue and listen to conflicting views. They shine a light on achievers and collaborators. They build the self-esteem of those around them and search for surprises and innovation. Their confidence comes from competence, and their strength comes from the communities that follow them.

Seek out remarkable leaders. It is beholden on all of us to expose leaders who are not.

And all leaders must strive to be remarkable, build up the people around them, not put them down, and seek collaboration, not conflict. 

Leaders of organisations today cannot lead in the old ways of position and power, command and control. They must learn to lead by example and actively engage with their people. Remove the barriers between the c-suite and the workforce, and be approachable, not aloof.

There was a beautiful scene in the film the Darkest Hour when Winston Churchill went out amongst the people in London and listened to them, engaging in dialogue. He invited their views and fears, and dreams. He sought and received inspiration from the people he served.

The biggest lesson for all leaders is that they don't have all the answers. No one person can. So get out of the ivory tower, go to the coalface in your business, and engage in dialogue.

We need new ideas. Don't look outside the organisation. Dig deep inside. The porter, ambulance driver, nurse, doctor, and consultant know how to enable the NHS to overcome challenges better than any chief executive or politician. So do the receptionist, the janitor, the sales rep, the warehouse manager and the customer service coordinator. The leadership we need is not from the top but from the workforce, which is true in any human organisation.

The job of the executive - the politicians and the c-suite - is to create the conditions so that the workforce and management can solve the problems. 

Every leader's goal must be to say, "my team have addressed the challenges and solved the problem". Too many leaders want to tell us how they solved the problem. Leaders never solve problems; they get in the way.

Don't be an obstacle, be an enabler.

Our book The Power of Organisation explains how engaging with the human part of any organisation is the fastest way to achieving successful change, even in the face of recession. Unleash the power of your organisation today by getting your copy on Amazon today.


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