6.01.2011

Leadership Credos I Find Lacking


For what's it worth, here's my take on some common leadership credos, which contain a grain of truth but are often distorted in bad ways:

1. "The ends justify the means." We start with an old classic, from Machiavelli's "The Prince." This gets at the heart of what it means to be a leader. Is it about getting stuff done, no questions asked? Or is there a moral component to it? Since I believe leadership is about character, I think it's less than half a victory to gain something at the loss, however imperceptible, of weightier things, like integrity or quality or honor.

2. "Well-behaved women rarely make history." I actually like this motto a lot. You could substitute a lot of words for "women" in that sentence and it would be just as powerful. But for women, I think it particularly resonates, for far too often we have asked our women to be kept in their place, and bold and brave women who felt called to be more than that have, thankfully, flexed their muscles and made a difference. All of that said, I think it is a perversion of the sentiment of this credo to use it as an excuse to be mean, jerky, and insensitive to what others think when you are in the pursuit of something you think matters. So one must tread carefully here.

3. "I'm an ideas person; I let others sweat the details." On the one hand, it is good to have a combination of big-picture folks and detail-oriented folks. It is also helpful to not dismiss ideas out of hand due to present constraints, for innovation would otherwise be stifled if we didn't think about the impossible. Nevertheless, this statement is often code for "I'm going to be lazy and let others work hard to figure out how to actually make this fly."

4. "I'm going to keep throwing stuff up against the wall until something sticks." Also known as "we need to do something," this is a good sentiment to the extent that it fosters creativity, willingness to fail (and to learn from what went wrong en route to making it right), and progress through incremental prototyping. But, especially in government, this can be a dangerous way to lead. People who seek stability, because they are making decisions based on a certain context, and if that context keeps changing, people eventually decide to sit on the sidelines until the dust settles. And that can be a bad thing for progress.

5. "I didn't ask to be a role model." It is true that people who are gifted in one thing (dribbling a basketball, hitting a high note, designing a social network) do not automatically get imbued with commensurate gifts in political affairs or moral leadership. Nevertheless, the thing about leadership is that it comes with a lot of stuff you don't sign up for but are on the hook to fulfill anyway. And one of those things is being a role model to others who will naturally look to you as the paragon for how to think and act in certain situations. So it is unleaderlike to shirk this grave responsibility just because you didn't seek it out yourself.

6. "L'etat, c'est moi." I take Louis the XIV's famous statement, "I am the State," and apply it to leaders, particularly in the non-profit sector, who become synonymous with their organization and even their entire cause. It is good branding for the cause, the organization, and the leader for that person's first name to be unmistakably associated with each other. It makes for good sound bites, lends clarity and weight to the cause, and facilitates fundraising. But it must be balanced with tremendous humility, an awareness of one's finiteness, and a plan to broaden the organization and the cause beyond one person. Rare is the leader who is able to strike that balance.

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