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BriefConsulting 1.7: Leadershit

I classify myself as a leadership skeptic. Seems like whatever the difficulty, somebody will start pleading for more, better, wiser, ... leadership, whatever THAT might be. This difficulty arises from a definite know-it-when-I see-it notion of what constitutes leadership, and the unclear implication that there’s probably no such thing. There’s probably no such thing.

Pity the poor devil perceived as the leader. Slave to Utopian notions, center stage, performing to a critical audience, certain to dissatisfy. The human response seems to be to try harder: to please, appease, ... Oh, pa-lese! The mythos surrounding leadership seems greater than the sum of its parts.

Leadershit has two parts. The first part lays undefinable expectations on some individual because they happen to occupy some position, often a position of presumed authority. The second part gives away personal authority, like peasants paying tribute to their king, to someone presumably more authorized to have it . It seems incongruous that a democratic society should rely so much on crypto-kings and pseudo-serfs, leaders and followers.

The tangles seem many. I might lord over those who so willingly cede their authority to me. I might appear to not be standing tall enough on the pedestal you’ve placed me upon. I might fumble or mumble, or otherwise fail to appear properly sage, or I might as easily appear altogether too know-it-all, disempowering instead of empowering like a good leader should.

Leadership training serves as perhaps the most popular placebo in organizational life. Seemingly endless streams of aspiring priests enter the temple to learn the tricks of the trade, the unluckiest leaving believing they’ve been blessed. Lord only knows who they’ll return pretending to be. The Brief Consultant sees a complicated dance reinforced by a trance that encourages what nobody wants.

The saddest by far are the perfect leaders, the ones who seem to never do anything wrong. Rebecca had that reputation. An IT executive, she was smart, strong, disciplined, interesting, and beautiful. Her hobbies included dressage, piloting her own plane, and climbing the tallest peaks. It was hard not to be intimidated in her presence, and both leader and follower understood the cost.

I invited her to put on a straight jacket in a nation-wide simulcast viewed by every one of her division’s employees. She’d agreed to this stunt without realizing how claustrophobic she was, and once secured into the suit, she experienced a rather public transformation: public panic. Nobody watching had ever suspected that there was an eight year old girl inside perfect Rebecca. I think Rebecca might have forgotten, too, but bundled up into that straight jacket, she briefly re-experienced a time when she was a Girl Scout practicing how to roll up in a rug should she ever find herself on fire. I quickly unbuckled the prop and invited a little conversation.

The space separating leader and follower narrowed in the next few minutes as the perfect leader displayed some perfect humanity. Fears appeared, courage and vulnerability paired up again, and a really different executive seemed to show up. No, Rebecca was no different but her department started viewing her differently. Later, I learned that the time after this little stunt saw a spate of real conversations happening between Rebecca and her so-called subordinates, almost as if they were somehow peers. Almost, indeed.

The tangle never untangles with the clever application of more leadership, that’s just bullshit: leadershit. The difficulty seems to be the inhumanity we bestow on anyone deemed leadership material, and especially those we don’t believe in like we ‘should.’ Some so-called poor leaders are just crappy supervisors. Some just fail to inspire the leader in me. Whatever the apparent cause, my general prescription for leadership troubles involves the direct injection of an ounce of humanity, some equalizing of the expectations, for we each are inescapably the leaders of ourselves, however clever or inept our so-called leaders seem to be. Most can deflect this sacred responsibility, trading it for a bottomless bag of complaints. The complaining stalls about the time someone calls the bluff. If I can’t lead myself, I disqualify everyone else who I might believe should be able to lead me.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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