Who decides who deserves to be called a leader and when may we attribute someone with the qualities of leadership and what are they?
There are some popular claims to give us a clue how Leadership is perceived in general. It is believed that if managers develop skills they may be able to transform them in to tangible leadership development. This is based on an assumption that certain leadership behaviours can be observed through skill building and taught. What are these skills?
According to me they may have some effect on efficiency of the manager, whether it makes him a leader is questionable.
Let us look at another area where the title of leadership is very desirable. Politicians in various countries are either attributed or they often appropriate the words leader and leadership for themselves. The news media is flooded with expressions such as “dear leader”, “supreme leader”, “leader of the free world” and many other such claims to give weight to otherwise irrelevant and at times even dangerous persons ruling a country.
In the last few years, I experienced a new phenomenon in business circles that I had not seen before and that is what motivated me to write about Leadership. In a casual social surrounding, a person heading a very famous pharmaceutical company in Germany claimed, I am a leader. At that time, I did not pay much attention to it and brushed it aside as another superlative with a short shelf life emerging from the US business circles. Over the next few years, I came across this claim more often and noticed that many more people, not just of US origin, claimed themselves to be a leader. It gave me the impression that for many people it is no more sufficient to be recognised as someone in an important position in a corporation. They wanted to be associated with being a leader which evidently must have been a superior title in their perception. The first thing we do when we think of a leader is that it is person who we look up to because of their extraordinary achievements. Without any evidence these qualities, there were people who wanted to be called leaders and that is what made me curious to explore further. I wanted to look behind this phenomenon and began with two simple questions: who is a leader and when is it appropriate to call something leadership?
As an exercise try to ask people around you. You are likely to receive many different and ambiguous responses to these questions. They may all sound plausible and convincing but at the same time the responses will also fit the definition of a manager, a guide, a head of a company, an organisation, a government, a human version of a silverback gorilla called an alpha male or even an ancient and detestable figure of a slave driver. Mostly it will be a description of people holding a position whose decisions influence the lives of all those depending on them. Is leadership about dependency on decision makers?
Let us look at some simple examples of people who lead others to some place.
A boy scout leads his group, he takes the responsibility of getting the whole group to the agreed venue. Is he a leader?
Someone helps a blind person to master unfamiliar surroundings. Is she a leader?
An army commander leading his soldiers to a battle or life-threatening missions. Is he a leader?
A port pilot navigating a large ship i.e. showing its way to a harbour is a leader?
A business person, who believes himself to be focused on the bottom line is toxic, disrespectful and brash. Is he a leader?
Is a tourist guide a leader? People follow him to various spots of interest.
If for a moment, we agree that all the examples above are about leadership, we will notice some commonalities in them. Leading is either through a chain of command, it is utilitarian, or it is about someone who commands others to perform according to his will.
I think in business world it would be wrong to attribute the word leadership to a position that imposes rules and regulations for people to follow or obey someone due to conferred authority. I am also convinced that many managers conveniently appropriate the expression leader because they misunderstand it. Heading a group of people or an administration should not automatically be called leadership. While to lead can be to show a direction anyone but these actions can also be called guiding, managing, coordinating etc.
It is very common that even the words manager and management are conveniently replaced by leader and leadership. Being a manager and someone of relevance in management is a very complex and admirable role. Even then some would like to give it new heights by calling management leadership. Is there something lacking in management that it needs additional face lifting?
What is management?
Management is a very complex, multi-dimensional and multi-polar construct.
On the one pole and in simple language, it is to manage something you apprehend may go out of control and cause grave damage or loss of life or money. On this pole, management is considered a process based on the underlying assumption of fear of loss and effective control. Management in this scenario could be defined as a skill to contain events into predictable outcomes. If that was all management was about then it would be very reductive and would disregard great achievements of many in our world. Another dimension is the capability to create well thought out and fine-tuned processes and systems that allow business and those running it to grow beyond local geographical constraints. Disruptive management has delivered innovative products and services that serve the needs of people in a manner that had not existed earlier. We have been fortunate to see many new products and services that have made our lives very convenient in the last few decades which I do not need to list here individually.
Business management, crisis management, financial management, facility management and many more such examples and you will see that all these exist for very important reasons and we need them all. We need good management in most areas of our daily life. If we do not manage our finances, we may face a serious situation. If a crisis is not managed, we may unnecessarily lose innocent lives. If public transport is not managed effectively it becomes a cause for immense annoyance and discomfort for the public. We need management in most aspects of our life otherwise we would struggle even for simple needs. Poor management can cause reduction in human performance and efficiency.
I could cite many more reason for relevance of management and convince you why management is great enough to be admired as a standalone concept. Why do we need leader and leadership to replace or enhance managers and management?
We experience many examples of misuse and misunderstanding of the words leader and leadership all the time. If a microchip company is doing well because their goods are in demand, we will hear that under the leadership of the CEO the company has grown. Is it so? Having worked with many large corporations, as their CEO and board member and later as an executive coach, I can assure you that too many top brands in Europe are managed poorly and leave me wondering how they continue to exist on the market. The answer is that the products and processes are not always made by those who are called leaders and attributed with the great success of the company in the media. The products and processes are made by experts in their respective fields. I do not need to remind you of the giant car maker in Germany who recently paid billions in penalties imposed on it for unethical if not criminal practices. If I had told you that I have coached executives in many large corporations in Europe and seen first-hand that they are managed very poorly, you would have countered my claim by a rational question: how come the financial results are good. I would ask you to look at the example of the carmaker above. Financial results are still good and what about the management? How does one explain this? Do these managers deserve to be called leaders and their work leadership? Just a few months prior to the scandal, the media was full of such praise about their leaders and leadership. Their success is not dependent on their so-called leadership. If that is so, would this company be able to exist without a management? If you replaced the whole top management of this company it would still be successful with new managers. Even mediocre management takes a long time to damage an established brand. They can destroy it if they put in great effort, and I think in the case above some made serious efforts to do so.
The business acumen of a CEO or a President of a corporation is a blessing for a company and a society because it allows those working there to earn their living and improve not only their quality of life but also that of the society. They also give products to us that make our lives convenient. Business acumen and wealth creation are often quickly translated into great leadership and I consider that a misuse and a gross misunderstanding of the expression of leadership.
According to my observations and experience in the corporate world, leadership is a consequence of certain behaviour. When a person demonstrates that he understands the concern of others and displays social emotions: being moved by the state of others and motivated to improve it. When a person demonstrates that his motivation to change a status quo is driven by values which for him are higher than any other authority, rules and even above personal or financial gain, he inspires people to follow him. Soon as someone has a following in recognition of his efforts for a greater good he deserves to be called a leader. Most critical factors that need to be present for someone to be called a leader is when others are inspired to act like him and willing to follow him voluntarily. He should be able to instil a desire in others to emulate his actions because they admire his interaction with others. That is why the expression leader cannot be claimed by anyone for himself, it is conferred by fellow human beings who follow him, and the following must be a majority in the relevant group. The motivation to follow a leader can stem from an anticipation of an improvement in the life situation of the whole group, but it cannot be called not leadership when a few individuals for their own benefit or out of fear of sanctions blindly obey someone. Leadership always shows a positive correlation with improvement in the lives of the people. To call someone a leader just because he is given a job to a head a business or elected to head a government would be a fallacy. It is the consequence of his work toward improvement of lives of the people around him that will decide whether he’s is a leader.
In my leadership seminars recently I asked the participants, who were all from upper management, a simple question: who is a leader?
Most said, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and many other world personalities who are respected, admired and still inspire many in our world. I reminded them that these personalities are not from the business world and they did not create wealth, services or products. Does that mean leaders do not or cannot exist in the business world? After some silence, I asked my participants if they would be willing to give some great achievers from the business world a seat on their list of leaders. I named:
Ratan Tata, former Chairman of Tata Group in India
Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony Corp. in Japan
Jack Walsh, known for his great achievements at General Electric in the USA
Louis Vincent Gerstner Jr. also called Luo Gerstner known for turning around IBM in the USA
For sake of parsimony, I chose to name just four great business persons from different parts of the world. There are many other such great managers in the world and not including them in this list should not be read as any disrespect to them.
When I asked them why are these managers called leaders along with the three well know world leaders we mentioned in the beginning? Is it not sufficient to praise their business achievement as great management? There was silence in the room for a couple of minutes but also enthusiasm in their eyes to hear more about it. I was aware that I had questioned a well-established paradigm. Why is anyone who is at the head of the company automatically a leader? Why do we not accept the great management and leave leadership alone?
After a good discussion on the points above, I asked the participants if they would include the great German politician Willy Brandt, a Nobel Laureate and former Chancellor of Germany in their list leaders? The group attending the seminar was very diverse and all agreed, they would. I asked them why they would include Willy Brandt. Some said they recall his spontaneous knee fall in Warsaw. It was in December 1970.
“What does it have to do with leadership?” I asked.
A participant from Poland said, “he asked for an apology from the whole nation and the people of Poland.”
“But he did not say a word”, I provoked deliberately.
“It shows humility of a person is such a high position to drop down on his knees bow his head and show repentance. Leaders act and show that they value the feelings of fellow human beings”, she said.
Another participant from Germany contributed, “he delivered a message to the whole nation that we should show remorse and apologise”.
“So, what is so special about this event and about him?”
“He’s showed his respect for human beings”, he continued.
“Is it always about people?” I asked.
“Leaders have certain values which they regard as their guiding force and they apply them to all human beings equally without any discrimination”, said a participant from the UK.
“They do everything for the good of people. Their personal gain or profile is not important to them”, said one participant from Turkey.
“So, what is the difference between Mr. Brandt and a business manager?” I asked.
A participant from Spain said, “leaders act on their values and business managers act on their goals and gains.”
“So, was it wrong on my part to call the four persons I mentioned from the business world as business leaders?”
“I think it is wrong to call someone a business leader”, another participant from the UK.
“Leading is always about people and a business is a legal entity an undertaking. If people do not follow you how do you lead a business?” he asked.
“So, can there be no leaders in business?” I asked.
“No, a business manager who works for the greater benefit of others is also a leader”, continued the gentleman from Belgium.
“Do you see a congruence of managers and leaders here? Is it the reason why those four business persons are also leaders?”
“Sure, they can be”, all agreed.
“Would you like to define the difference between Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King and any business leader? The first three had nothing to do with business.” I said.
“Business managers who are admired by their colleagues for their behaviour in the company inspire others to do more than they would normally do”, said another participant from the UK.
“So why should someone be admired in a business?” I asked.
“Because they are extremely concerned about how everybody is treated in their company. They show respect for every single person, irrespective of the position of the person. Others watching this behaviour consider it of great value and a recognition that they are not just a cog in the wheel but a person of value to the company”, explained the same participant from the UK.
“Respect is an ambiguous word and can be interpreted as you like. How do you know that your CEO respects others?” I asked.
“He shows no hurry to bypass anyone, stops to talk to the people and wants to know how they are doing in the company”, he continued.
“He gives meaning to every person working in the company?” I asked.
“Yes”, he responded.
“Is that not a tough job? If you have 5,000 persons working in your company how do you go around showing respect to each one of them?” I asked.
“When leader visits a few people to show her interest in them, others recognise it as something great being done to their own and that is contagious. Mr. Brandt did not go to each person in Poland”, said a manager from the UK
I asked them to come to some common working discrimination between a manager and leader. This is what emerged: “Leaders work for the greater benefit of all stakeholders. Business managers want their goals to be achieved irrespective of the circumstances”.
“Is the leader not at a disadvantage if he does not want to achieve the goals of a company?” I asked.
A participant from the UK said he would like to clarify: “managers push people, sanction or offer benefits so that the goals are achieved in time. Leaders have a following and people voluntarily do more to achieve the agreed goals. There is a vast difference between how a business manager agrees to goals and how a leader does it. There is no ambiguity in the agreement with the leader. When a manager wants projects or goals achieved there is at times a sense of compulsion and fear if completion dates are not met.”
“Who would you rather work with,” I asked.
“With a leader.”
“Who would you like to be in your work?” I asked.
After a small pause, a few people gave individual feedback and most of it looked like this: “I need to look at how I am working with my colleagues. Another participant said I think I need to rethink my priorities.”
Businesses and systems need to be managed. If you manage people you create discontent. Evolutionary psychologists will tell you that humans by nature are willing to follow someone they perceive to possess superior qualities. In the earlier times it must have been to follow a strong person to hunt together in safety of a group. Following someone in self-interest is not related with leadership. Business managers can be leaders at the same time if they manage the business and lead the people. If you lead a business and manage people, I am not sure how you would do it. Many politicians love to call themselves political leaders. They get elected on their superlative promises and fail to deliver even a fragment of what they promised during their campaign. The reason is that they do not know how to manage systems and they do not know how to inspire people to follow them. We do not need to search very far. For those of you who have children at home may have experienced that if you try to manage them you are always at loggerheads. Soon as the children notice that the parents understand and care about their needs everything seems to run smoothly. This is how to differentiate who to lead and what to manage.
Going back to my audience in my seminars there was one question that one participant asked which is relevant.
“I have worked with a boss who was extremely humiliating and aggressive to me. Is he not a leader? Or would you call him a bad leader?”
I preferred to involve the whole group and asked them, “is there anything called bad leadership?”
“A lady from Poland said, “no there is no bad leadership.”
“So, what is it that this manager was doing?” I asked.
Her colleague said, “he was just a bad person. Why do we need to call him a leader? What do say Arun?” he asked me.
“If leadership is bad, then the consequence should be that no one is following you. If no one is following you where is the leadership? Who are you leading, who are you inspiring if no one is following you?”
Contrary to management, leadership is a unipolar and unidirectional consequence of a behaviour where values are given much higher consideration and preference than personal gains. Management is directing others to achieve a desired outcome. Be it market share, capital gains or containment of events. Leaders also want to achieve a desired outcome but they do not direct others, they inspire others by their own actions and by giving value to their fellow human beings.
What differentiates leaders? Who can say that?
If we look at the qualities, the persons mentioned above have displayed. We may come to an unbiased finding as to why people wanted to call them world leaders.
All the personalities mentioned above had a few aspects in common in their behaviour:
Is it right for anyone to decide how someone should hijack the expression “leader” or “Leadership”? I hope most of my readers are the same opinion as I am. No, no one should be able to do that, it is the other who confer this title to outstanding fellow humans.
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Disclaimer: For the sake of inclusiveness, I use gender interchangeably throughout the article. This I have done for convenience of reading and without any intention to disregard gender: reference to one gender should be understood as to the gender of your own preference.
Copyright © 2021 Arun Kohli | Executive Coach | Intercultural Trainer