Imagine that you just read an article on how your competition is steadily stealing your market share. This is nothing new to you, they have been out innovating you for some time now and it’s now apparent that your current products or services are inferior. Slowly you’ve seen your talent leave for greener pastures as rumors of downsizing abound. There is a fear permeating the organization as people wonder what the future holds. What’s needed is a real leader! Someone who can come in and make things right again. We’ve seen this scenario play out time and again. The Board will likely remove the C-Suite and bring in a leadership savior. Yet, what if we have got this whole leadership thing all wrong? What if the very essence of how we define leadership is no longer serving us?
We can’t really fault why we seek a leadership savior in these scenarios. It’s engrained in our DNA! The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) explains that since the dawn of time we have engaged in a social contract within groups. Essentially when a group member emerged to offer us much needed direction, protection and order, we in turn granted them authority over us. As long as this person kept their side of the bargain, we continue to reward them with increased power. At some point we started calling this authority figure our Leader, Chief, or King which anointed them with title and elevated social status as well. The key distinction to make here is that we started associating the exercising of authority with leadership. This is a huge mistake as leadership is totally different.
Given the above scenario, direction, protection and order is exactly what we crave. We want a new direction and our new leadership should have the ability to see what we cannot. We require protection from our competitors and the threat they present. We desire order as a power vacuum emerges from the loss of key talent. Yet, what if instead of providing the direction we need to go, leadership helped us to figure out where we collectively want to go together? What if instead of sheltering us from our competitor’s threats, leadership exposed the reality that we faced and challenged us to be more? What if instead of returning us to a calm and comfortable place, leadership taught us to embrace the chaos of change and to value living on the edge of constant learning? In short, what might happen if instead of exercising authority, our leadership actually led us?
Intuitively, we get this. While management is an important aspect of a productive society, deep down inside we all want to be led more so than managed. When we experience true leadership we feel empowered to grow to our full potential. Outside of experiencing love, there is perhaps no greater feeling than pushing yourself to be more than you thought you could be. Yet, with the pleasure of growth we often experience loss and pain. We have to let go of a part of ourselves and learn to be something new. Learning then becomes a series of failures until we ultimately get it right. This can be a very disappointing and humbling process. Thus, true leadership requires us to disappoint our followers at a rate that they can tolerate.
This is the very reason why we see more authority rather than leadership being exercised in our world. There is a real art to establishing enough trust with followers so that they allow you to disappoint them. Disappoint them too much and you will soon be looking for a new job. Yet, it’s important to note that if you disappoint them too little, as when exercising pure authority, and you will also be looking for a new job! Exercising authority will not promote the learning needed for organizational growth, and thus results will be the same over time. With consistently poor to average results, you will eventually be replaced as your organization seeks out new “leadership.” Thus, the next time you feel the pull to provide direction, protection and order to your team, take a step back and try to recognize what is really needed in this moment. Start practicing leadership rather than authority and watch your organization begin to flourish.
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