How Would You Describe Your Relationship With Leadership?

So far in the year 2020, there has been a lot of discussion about leadership, at all levels of government and countless companies and organizations.  If you wonder about the quality of the job they are doing, your conclusion likely depends on your current relationship with leadership. It would have something to do with what you are fundamentally looking for from leadership, framed by the way you have engaged with leaders for your entire life. It begs a larger question or two around what we individually and societally want and need from our leaders and the collective definition of what good leadership looks like.

What do we want and need from our leaders?  Is it safe to say that each one of us would cite different answers (possibly with some overlap) to this question?  Each of us has grown up uniquely and developed our own views of leaders based on our life experiences.  So not only are those wants and needs not universal, but they vary between each individual.

Some people were taught to simply respect and obey their leaders, unquestionably.  Others learned to push back on anyone and everyone in a leadership position.  Most of us are somewhere in between, able to relate to and effectively engage our leaders to achieve a desired result.  Making this more complicated, it goes without saying that every engagement or ‘situation’ is different (read up on Dr. Ken Blanchard’s work for more on ‘Situational Leadership.’), requiring a unique adjustment by each of us and the leader to achieve the optimal outcome.

So how did you learn ways of relating to the different leaders in your life?  And how did you know that someone was a good leader for you?  Did you consider them to be ‘good’ if your personalities blended well, making them easy to talk with?  Or were they ‘good’ if they ‘weren’t too tough on you?  Were they ‘good’ if they made you feel safe?  Or were they ‘good’ if they were very clear about what they expected of you?  Or was it a combination of those situations and possibly more?

We hope and we want to believe that our leader is knowledgeable, competent, deserving of our trust, has the best interests of the team in mind and that their heart is in the right place, but in many instances, that is not the case. We have learned to adapt to leaders who don’t or can’t perform the way we need them to.  We find ways to work around them, to minimize their deficiencies and negative impact on us – we become experts at developing ‘compensatory behaviors’ as workarounds.  We learn to make do, to manage.  And while all this is happening, we tend to complain.  We will be quick to tell others how bad a given leader is, how incompetent they are and how difficult they make our lives.

Is this really how we are destined to relate to leaders in our lives?

While we ponder that point, consider the earlier question of what good leadership looks like. Likely a similar answer to what we need and want from leaders – very unique and personal. 

Allow another question:  Have we ever taken the time to define exactly what leadership is?  Have we taken the time to discuss, frame and ratify a set of minimum expectations or requirements for what an effective leader is supposed to be able to do?  We may have done that in specific work settings within specific teams, organizations, companies or certain military groups, but what about as a society?  Have we, as strong, independent, hard working people, ever, in an organized and systemic, even institutional way, attempted to define the scope of what we need from effective leadership and then sought to implement those definitions?

Let’s say the answer is no, we have not done that, at least not yet.  We sometimes create such definitions and frameworks for critical task driven work in our society – think board certified surgeon, commercial aircraft pilot, certified engineer, nurse, attorney, CPA and others.  But we don’t appear to have such rigor for ‘leaders.’  Why is that?  We hand the keys to so many important parts of our lives to people who may or may not have the needed leadership skills to succeed.  Why do we do that?  Why do we not demand a certain minimum set of skills or qualifications from people we place in leadership positions?  Why do we roll the dice on their leadership aptitude, gambling on their ability to succeed?  Why do we spend so much time and money to clean up the messes caused by unqualified leaders?

For that matter, how do we currently determine fitness for giving people leadership positions in the first place?  What experience, qualities, skills or characteristics determine a person’s ability to lead others?  That too varies and is situationally unique.  Some consider a college degree of 2 or 4 years as a qualifier.  Some see military experience as a qualifier.  Some admire the high performing or long tenure employee (usually with outstanding attendance!) as ideal.  Or perhaps being someone’s relative is sufficient.  And what about the phenomenon of seeing someone as a ‘natural leader’ as a measure that qualifies them to lead others?  For the record, none of those qualifiers seem to consistently predict desired leadership performance, partly  because they are not being measured against a known standard (think doctor, pilot, etc).

The point is, there is a lot of variation in this idea of leadership.  Those variations occur because each of us has a unique definition of what a good leader does and what we need from them. What does that variability mean for predicting any one person’s performance as an effective leader?  It means that the organization and the people in it are exposed to an unreasonably high degree of risk and performance variability because our ‘upfront’ criteria was not robust enough. 

The question we as a society have not answered is, “What do we really need and want from our leaders?” How and when will we answer this question and what will be the catalyst to even ask it?  How and when will we define and qualify those discrete capabilities, paving the way for a sustainable framework to develop people with those skills?



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