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What It Takes to Be a Good Leader

Effective leadership is an elusive quality for many, but this chapter will help you to examine the psychological and philosophical aspects of leadership and how these concepts can help you to change yourself into an effective leader.
This chapter is from the book Untitled Document

Leaders and Change

"One's self is at the base of everything. Every action is a manifestation of the self. A person who doesn't know himself can do nothing for others."

-- Eiji Yoshikawa1


The Importance of Leadership

We all know the importance of effective leadership. Leaders not only make a difference in the results of their organizations, they also make a difference in the satisfaction levels of the people working within the organizations.2 The relationship between follower satisfaction and lower absenteeism, lower turnover, and higher productivity has been clearly substantiated.3

Getting along with the boss is the number one factor affecting job happiness, according to a recent national survey.4 All we need to do is think about our own experiences with people who managed us to understand how important the leader-follower relationship is to our organizational well-being, and therefore, how crucial a good leader is to follower satisfaction.

The Conundrum

If it is so important, why don't more people lead others more effectively? There are several reasons. Lack of know-how and lack of commitment to use that know-how are the two primary reasons for lack of effective leadership. However, we do not believe that leaders get up in the morning and go to work with the intent to mismanage or mislead those with whom they are charged to work. Instead, we are optimistic that the intent to effectively lead others is behind most leaders' behavior. Therefore, let's look at two examples to better understand the problem.

Two Examples

Consider Bob and Antonio, the two male executives described in the pages that follow. These men are incredibly typical of the leaders we encounter within the many organizations in which we work. It is not that there are villainous people in leadership positions, but, sadly, there seem to be few heroes to follow. Instead, the visionless, myopic, self-oriented Bobs and Antonios who do not inspire others toward meaningful work are the norm. The tragic part is that these negative leader descriptions come to us through the words of those being led.

Questions to Ponder

As you read the descriptions of these far too typical leaders, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the leaders in my organization like those described here?
  • What effect do they have on the motivation of their followers?
  • What is the intent, never mind the effect, of such leaders?
  • Is there something of them in me?
  • What prevents leaders such as these from growing, learning, and changing?
  • What is the long-term effect of this type of leadership on the output and well-being of the organization?
  • How can the organization afford to have these leaders continue to lead others?

In short, we believe that those who are being led deserve better. Organizations will not prosper, change, and grow if better leadership is not forthcoming. However reluctant you may be to admit it, if you see something of yourself in these examples, then you must commit yourself to change and growth. If people such as Bob and Antonio lead others in your organization, then you must find ways to help them change before your organization can become truly functional.

If your leadership is not perceived the way you had intended or expected, then it is in your best interest to change. If the people you seek to lead are either not productive or seem skeptical of your leader behaviors, then you need to explore other ways of leading and becoming more effective.

Bob's Self-Perceptions

Bob is a 42-year-old chief financial officer for a $30-million, privately owned company. He manages the accounting department, which includes numerous direct and indirect reports. Bob relishes the processes and procedures of accounting, and believes that similar rational lines of thinking can and should be applied to all parts of the company. As CFO, Bob is called into several high-level meetings with other VPs of service, product development, sales, and marketing.

Although an introvert by nature, Bob would say that he is flexible enough to present a social exterior of distant informality. His main strength, as he sees it, lies in helping others apply rational thinking to daily events and problems. This process will take time. He believes that "haste makes waste," and urgency must take its place in line behind thoroughness. For Bob, making a decision without due consideration of all the risks signifies poor judgment.

Good team meetings, in Bob's opinion, are ones in which a leader guides the process so that everyone can speak, agendas are followed, and risks are noted. He believes that "passionate conflict" between team members should be kept to a minimum. When unresolved issues do arise, they should be dealt with offline. The conflicting parties should observe proper decorum, stick to the issues, and be tactful. If Bob has differences with either his boss or peers, he mentions these differences in team meetings as issues to be considered. If his perspective is not heeded, then he feels underappreciated and disrespects those who disagree with his warnings and wisdom.

Bob sees himself as a serious, hard-working company man who performs all tasks, even charity work, with a certain efficiency and industry. In team meetings with those who report directly to him, he wants the meeting to move along quickly. He displays little tolerance for what he considers "petty interpersonal" issues between his people. He sees "channels of communication," procedures, and policies as extremely important to solving problems.

Others' Perceptions of Bob

Bob's people see him as coming to meetings with his mind made up and emphasizing process to minimize resistance. The employees on "his team" view him as reaching decisions by using the group to examine possible risks to his own ideas, downplaying alternatives, and moving to closure around his position. Then, the decision is represented upward as a team decision.

Bob is seen as evading both open-ended discussions that entail conflict and free-flowing dialogue in which other ideas may gather momentum. Others' ideas are regarded as combative. Both direct reports and peers view him as becoming tense at the possibility of values or interpersonal issues overtaking the business at hand. Direct reports feel Bob would be uneasy if the group met without him.

Most of his direct reports say that Bob is unreceptive, tactful, critical, and political. In tense situations, Bob gets angry, attacks, and shuts down what little alternative thinking he may do in favor of avoiding risk. He is seen as following process to minimize even healthy differences of opinion, lessen possible conflicts, make the outcomes more efficient, and improve the bottom line.

Bob is perceived as someone who is not having much fun. His people think he has extremely poor "people skills." He garners little loyalty from his people, partially because they do not know him as a person. They see him as someone who tries to fulfill a role without engaging either his heart or theirs. They see his work pace as slow, methodical, thoughtful, and controlling. He delegates very little and tells his people that he wants to see "final" products or reports "for an information check" before they go out. He is seen as task focused, not people focused. People matters seem to be somewhat of an energy drain to him. He tends to be seen as pessimistic about life events.

Bob is perceived as an uncommunicative soul who "suffers in silence" to all but a few. He tends to avoid most conflict until he can't take it anymore, then he explodes with his own brand of attacking diplomacy. Using tactful accusations, he will try to gain some control over others through procedure and process. He is seen as choosing to block or avoid the expression of his own passion and humanness in favor of a self-alienating compliance to procedure and rational process.

Bob's effect on direct reports produces a stultifying, boring, initiative-draining environment where emotionless, bureaucratic procedures replace the passion and enjoyment possible in a work setting. As a result, in spite of stable departmental performance and growth, many of his employees leave for greener pastures.

Antonio's Self-Perceptions

Antonio is a 36-year-old vice president of research and development for a large, $700-million health-care company. He heads a group of people responsible for researching and documenting the relationship between health-care costs, effective medical treatments, and customer perceptions of health care. He serves as the HMO's spokesman to legislative groups, customer organizations, and physician groups. Antonio has published extensively, gained industry-wide recognition, and "caught the eye" of those who run the corporate holding company that owns the HMO.

Antonio sees himself as someone who can give a good presentation and make a favorable impression. He is well dressed and plays golf in the low 80s. He views himself as the head of a proud Hispanic family and is proud of his eight- and ten-year-old sons, who attend private schools. He travels incessantly, enjoys his work, appreciates the power and status of his role, and has adjusted well to the changing face of the health-care industry.

In extended conversations with Antonio, we heard him rationalize that those who left his unit were incompetent workers whose previous leader had not addressed their performance issues. The interesting thing about Antonio is that this bright, articulate man mostly agreed with much that his direct reports and peers said about him, after first giving some face-saving rationale. Antonio's reaction to hearing these perceptions was to offer extensive support of his own perceptions, followed by avoidance of further dialogue and promises to do what he could in the future.

Others' Perceptions of Antonio

Antonio's peers, direct reports, and boss describe him as incredibly bright and energetic. He is seen as a competent researcher who is ambitious and articulate, with an excellent grasp of health-care industry issues.

Although his direct reports appreciate his brightness, almost all of them describe him as arrogant, disrespectful, and demeaning. They say he communicates a know-it-all attitude and conveys an air that everyone else has inferior skills and knowledge. Employees describe Antonio as someone who says he wants directness and honesty, yet becomes irate when they suggest alternatives to his ideas or even ask for the rationale behind his decisions.

Most of Antonio's peers see him as self-centered. They say that he does only what he wants to do. He keeps his image intact by silence, diplomacy, avoidance, and, when all else fails, attacks and public beratings. Antonio is perceived as an intimidating, smooth, political, dishonest, unethical, results-oriented man who creates a stressful work environment for both direct reports and peers. They believe Antonio keeps only the promises and appointments that serve his personal agenda, and operates on a plan unknown to those who are responsible for supporting it.

In the seven months that Antonio has led the research and development unit, seven of his thirteen direct reports left. In doing background interviews with his direct reports (some who had left as well as those still working for him) prior to our discussions with Antonio, we found that some would not talk to us for fear of reprisal. Antonio's boss sought our help because it was time to either help Antonio improve or let him go. His boss understood that Antonio could not stand alone, but must succeed within the context of others. Antonio's peers were beginning to work around him, thus stretching already overextended organizational resources.

Antonio's effect on others was easily seen in the disdain, disrespect, and anger expressed by his direct reports and peers. In his short seven months as VP of research and development, Antonio hit some home runs by publicizing the organization's output and "catching the eye" of the holding company's top brass. But, because of his effect on others around him, it is just a matter of time before this interpersonal "time bomb" goes off and Antonio self-destructs.

The Four Tragedies

The situations with Bob and Antonio are variations on a theme. Each man, as described by direct reports, is ineffective. Antonio views himself as others do and knows that people consider him ineffective. In fact, the questionnaires given to both Antonio and his people revealed the same profile. Bob, on the other hand, views himself as an effective leader and was surprised to receive feedback contrary to his own view. Bob's and Antonio's ineffectiveness results in at least four tragedies.

The first tragedy lies in the fact that Bob is not aware of the effect he is having on his direct reports. What creates his myopia? What causes him to misunderstand the effect he is having on people? Does he know what to do to change his behavior?

The second, even more apparent tragedy, lies in Antonio's knowing how he is viewed by his people, yet choosing not to change. Antonio certainly lacks the will to change, regardless of whether he has the knowledge and skill to change.

Both Bob and Antonio, like the executives they typify, lack knowledge. They lack an understanding of the true meaning of leadership. They lack the self-knowledge necessary to clearly see why they act the way they do. They have little understanding of their impact on others, and they have few ideas about possible alternatives that could be used. However, even if they considered the possible alternatives, they do not show the courage or self-discipline to use them.

The third tragedy is found in the impact these men have on those they are supposed to lead. Their leadership does not help others be more productive and energized. Instead, they create anger, fear, resentment, frustration, and flight. Their direct reports hate coming to work each day. In some instances, their direct reports refused to describe their perceptions to us and blamed the organization for letting this happen.

The fourth tragedy lies in the loss these typical leaders create for the organization they are supposed to serve. The organization's resources are not well spent supporting this type of leadership. Additionally, the organization loses employee creativity, energy, efficiency, commitment, and productivity. In some cases, this type of leader garners employee resentment and ill will to the point of employee sabotage.

These tragedies are typical, but not exhaustive, of the leadership problems existing in today's organizations. In most cases, individuals in leadership positions are well meaning. However, because of a general lack of individual and organizational awareness concerning what effective leadership behaviors could and should be used, these problems persist.

The Abetting System

Such "leaders" work and act within organizations that permit or even foster this kind of ineffective behavior. Organizations, through the individuals that head them, too often promote the Bobs and Antonios into positions of power and control. Thus, poor leadership begets more poor leadership because poor leaders often select managers who possess the same traits they themselves demonstrate. Because human issues are not valued as much as the bottom line, effective corporate leadership continues to be evaluated solely on how it appears to affect shareholder value. Human issues take longer to "fix," and thus the Bobs and Antonios of corporate America continue to be in charge of others.

From our vantage point as corporate consultants, there is more competition than collaboration among executives. Too often, short-term issues displace long-term future considerations. Too often, focus on profits supersedes the relationship with employees and customers, efficiency is substituted for genuine quality, and rationality drives out joy in the workplace. This lack of leadership is exacting a dreadful toll.

Kissing Off the Organization

The fallout created by a pyramid of ineffective executives, as typified by Bob and Antonio, is devastating and pervasive. Our observations lead us to believe that people in organizations feel sad and dissociated from their organizations. Too many employees have long since moved from skepticism to cynicism with regard to their leaders and their organizations. The incidence of truly loyal employees (employees committed to the organization and planning to stay at least two years) remains at just 24 percent nationally, the same as in 1999. Thirty-four percent of U.S. employees are at risk (employees neither committed to the organization nor planning to stay), as compared to 33 percent in 1999.5

Too many of those who work in organizations do so merely to make a living, not to make a meaningful, fulfilling contribution to their organizations. Instead, they are merely spending time on the job to make enough money to do what they really want to do off the job. In short, many employees don't nurture their organization; they merely meet the job requirements.

People go to their place of employment, but aren't fully engaged with either their minds or hearts. Too many employees seem to lead stressful organizational lives because they choose or are forced to abandon their personal beliefs, values, and hopes "at the organization's doorstep." They go to work simply to lay bricks, rather than envisioning the creation of a cathedral.

A recent Fortune article6 documented how the "best and brightest" don't want to be part of corporations due to the organization's lack of creativity, autonomy, and vision. Instead, the more talented among the younger generation are looking for alternatives to corporate life. If they do become part of a corporation, then it is only to learn and earn enough to get out, be on their own, and create their own vision, independence, and freedom. Younger workers have little interest in building their organization's future and show little interest in their organization's health or well-being. Today's workers feel owned instead of having a sense of psychological ownership in their organization's purpose. They feel weak, not strong; they are cynical, not hopeful; they feel despair, not commitment. Instead of viewing themselves as a partner, they feel apart, separated from their organization's purpose, the possibility of meaningful work, and the joy of mutual effort. They have no commitment to something greater than their own self-interest or reward for their own individual efforts.

The Leadership Vacuum

A great deal of fault lies at the feet of the leaders. Poor leadership results not from conscious malice, but from inadequate leadership knowledge, values, and behaviors. Many leaders we encounter do not fully realize that the biggest competitive edge they have lies more in the people they lead and less in technology, capitalization, or market share.

People in leadership positions do not know themselves well enough to escape the "disease of me."7 This lack of leader self-knowledge results in organizational systems, policies, practices, and stories that do not create energizing environments of true hope and worth for those who work in them. Just over one-half (54 percent) of the employees surveyed believe their organizations treat employees fairly. Additionally, an atmosphere of genuine care and concern for employees was only experienced by 44 percent of the surveyed population.8

Those in positions of authority are the products of the very systems that need to be changed. Too often, those who are technically proficient, politically astute, or have a strong desire for power or wealth are in charge. The succession processes of many corporations seem to sift out those who are not politically aware and driven toward power and bottom-line results. The process of natural selection reinforces a culture of "self"-oriented individuals. A 1999 National Business Ethics Study reported that only 47 percent of the employees surveyed thought their leaders were highly ethical. Additionally, 56 percent of the population surveyed felt that expectations of ethical behavior had been well communicated within the organization. Yet, only a third of the employees surveyed felt comfortable reporting ethical misconduct.9

Those who usually rise to the top of the many organizations with which we are acquainted sacrificed much of their joy and compassion to get there. They have neither the sense nor desire to produce an energizing work environment that includes both a social vision and values for others they may lead. Instead, these individuals are caught up in their own personal quest to climb the corporate ladder. There seems to be a profound lack of purposefulness, except to make it to the top.

More often than not, we see leaders who do not have a vision that manifests a clear set of beliefs for leading their organizations into the future. Instead, many in management or leadership positions find themselves shaped by corporate culture, rather than shaping or changing the culture to emotionally ignite the minds and hearts of those who carry out the organization's purpose. Thus, it is understandable that leaders have little or no vision. They are followers who are promoted to leadership positions with no precedents for what leadership could be.

Not knowing what to do to move their organizations toward an energizing work environment with social vision and values is understandable. What is disturbing is that many of those in leadership positions do not have the energy, tolerance, or perspective to want to lead their organizations into the future.

Corporate leaders often lack the self-knowledge necessary to act effectively for themselves, their followers, or the long-term, overall positive welfare of their organizations. Those in authority lack an appreciation of the nature of leadership. They often dwell on concepts that divide and separate people, rather than on concepts that reflect the interconnectedness and commonality of people. They become forgetful of purpose and values that explain why and what for. They have very little awareness of the context of their office or the external environment that frames whatever it is they are responsible for. They seldom see themselves as learners who are creating new realities for themselves and others.

Corporate leaders are often physically out of shape and emotionally blocked. In the worst cases, they are spiritually starved executives who live terribly imbalanced lives chained to corporate titles, responsibility, and, of course, large financial payoffs. These executives are workaholics. They are the "respectable addicts" of an imbalanced system and, more often than not, they create or allow environments that produce dysfunctional employees.

Executives are often driven by personal aims. From executive boardrooms to the small entrepreneurial offices of most organizations, there can be found a group of ego-driven, personally myopic, provincially interested people competing for power and energy with almost everyone else. In most instances, that drive results in pain, dissatisfaction, broken marriages, dissolved partnerships, and disintegrated personal relationships. For many, the "road to the top" is a relentless grind in which an individual must choose to make the supreme sacrifice of personal fulfillment on an altar of organizational power and influence.

We could provide extensive economic, sociological, and medical data to verify the need for better leadership in organizations. Instead, we ask you to ponder these questions:

  • Does the leadership of your organization promote the healthy, integrated growth of all key stakeholders (employees, owners, and customers)?
  • Are the organization's members becoming physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthier?
  • If you were the leader, how would organizational members honestly answer these questions about you and your organization?

Leaders are not independent beings merely attaining personal financial goals and greater career opportunities. They must, as Socrates advocates, "See their office as a social responsibility, a trust, a duty, and not as a symbol of their personal identity, prestige and lofty status."10

It's as if leaders forget that what is done to others, is done to self. They overlook the interconnectedness of humanity. The leaders' aim should be to build energy among those who share the same business purpose and values, because business purpose and values represent the key to individual commitment. Without clarity and agreement around these elements, everyone's energy is limited. The leaders' aim should also be to create integrity in the treatment of the customer, as well as integrity in the treatment of organizational members who serve the customer. It is vital for leaders to understand that how employees are treated by the organization is how the employee is likely to treat the customer.11 Without this understanding, individual and organizational wholeness is unfeasible or improbable.

The Covenant

Leaders must understand that a covenant is established between each employee and the organization--a covenant in which the employee decides whether to give more or take more. Some research indicates that approximately 26 percent of a company's workforce is engaged (loyal and productive), 55 percent is not engaged (putting in time), and 19 percent is actively disengaged (unhappy and spreading discontent).12 What kind of a covenant is established within your organization?

What kind of covenant do you establish if the company continually communicates messages that workers are expendable, interchangeable, dispensable, or second-class? What kind of covenant do you establish if the organization has no vision or values, or the stated vision and values are not actually in use? The data is clear and obvious. Because of the perceived low ethical standards of executives, employees feel justified in responding in a like manner. They retaliate through absenteeism, sabotage, theft, indifference, or poor productivity.13

By now you might think we have little faith in humanity. We do not think people are inherently self-serving, uncaring, or socially irresponsible. In fact, we believe just the opposite is possible. With the right leadership, most people are capable of a great deal of human connectedness, organizational productivity, and self-integration. However, the naturally striving and growing individual is vulnerable to being controlled and made to feel ineffective in corporate settings. The organizational context can either be nurturing or antagonistic toward the individual's integrated sense of self, and therefore the covenant formed between the individual and the organization is influenced positively or negatively.

This covenant is profoundly shaped by the leaders who represent and embody the "organization" in the mind of the employees. Leaders who do not possess self-awareness, integrity, and character, or do not recognize the value in social purpose and connectedness, negatively influence employees to become takers. Such employees learn to act in compliance or defiance with the organization's policies and procedures. They take as much as possible and give as little as possible.

It is up to leaders to embody sharing, connectedness, and self-integration so they can help others develop the same qualities. Good leadership starts from the inside of an individual leader, and then is demonstrated outwardly. Good leadership is founded in a state of being, not just doing. Good leadership is about your outlook, your orientation, your character, and your inner thoughts and emotions.

Good leadership results in creating new realities for others to follow, or for others to be allowed to create. However, if you are to do that for others, then you must do it for yourself first! You cannot expect your organization, team, or direct reports to change if you are not willing to change. The ideas in this book can help you in your lifelong quest to become a better leader and produce an environment that fosters the well-being of others.

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