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Why most leaders and managers fail to understand

The chat behind the bosses back is often about how he or she doesn’t understand. What we generally mean is that the boss doesn’t know us for who we are, just for what we do. We know that our bosses aren’t bad people but we criticise them nonetheless for their leadership failures.

As we search for leadership, we often look to others who have displayed some greatness and attempt to copy them but the truth is that we really don’t know what true leadership is.  This article explores leadership from a people perspective and examines what great leaders do.

What does not work

A parallel can be drawn between leadership and the words of Norman Cousins in his book ’In Place of Folly’ (1961), particularly the chapter ‘En route to a true civilisation’. It could just as well read ‘En route to true leadership’.

Cousins says that when we look to others, those with great names or human experience, a Galileo, Lavoisier or Jefferson for example, we give ourselves credit for having some part in their greatness. In NZ we could substitute names such as Hillary, Rutherford, or Snell.

He says that such a claim is a form of delusion. Galileo’s brilliance did not result in a race of men uniformly capable of doing what he had done.

Nor have Hillary’s achievements led to a brace of men capable of leading others to great achievements. Do you have a Hillary leading you at work?

Cousins goes on to say that it is a colossal conceit to suppose that the sharing of knowledge produces a sharing of greatness.

But isn’t this exactly what we do in trying to develop leaders? We have courses and presentations, books and seminars and coaching programmes all with the same aim of sharing knowledge and techniques to produce leaders, just as a factory produces widgets.

Not all can achieve greatness

The truth is that if one person has reached the pinnacle of success it does not necessarily mean that others can reach the same peak.

The majority of us continue as we are. As Cousins says, we live a life ”of compartmentalisation, some sections of which are marked with glittering splendour; others are as dimly lighted as they were thousands of years ago”.

No wonder we fail at leadership. We continue to promote the idea of “they can and you can too“ or equally as ineffective “if you do as I say through learning you can lead”. 

What great leaders do

History gives us an insight into what makes a great leader. Again, Cousins has some wise counsel.

“Not infrequently what would happen was that a few great men were unafraid to appeal directly to the good sense and quality of integrity that are deep within most men and that have only been awakened in order to constitute the strongest force known in history. The great men who made these appeals were not concerned with the safety or respectability of their reputations as reputations were measured in their own time. Nor were they seeking personal glory. They were seeking the end of delusion or evil. They became great because they knew how to summon common people to greatness.”

Great leaders today are those who know themselves deeply. What they stand for is not based on a position or title or on achievements or status. Knowing yourself is a strength; weakness is pretending to be a leader because of title or position or qualification and trying to be something that is not true to who you really are.

Nothing has changed 

True leadership is not influenced by generational issues. We talk about Gen Y and Gen X but these are just labels. Fundamentally people haven’t changed and it is wrong to think that true leadership is different across generations.

Today we are more connected to each other than ever by technology but this shouldn’t change our approach to leadership either. 

Cousins says “people devote full time to planting, building, sweeping, cleaning, carving cooking, directing or playing. They give their time to machines, paper, and human problems”.

We still do these things. We take on positions of ‘doing’ and don titles to match. We see people for their usefulness and as products to produce results. 

Where are the leaders who, like the great ones, give their time to people as people? Who don’t focus on what people do, the roles they occupy or the teams they are in but who they are.

Where are the people like Gandhi ? He felt deeply about the entire human community and was a man of towering moral stature and imagination whose goodness and willingness to sacrifice himself in the cause of man will always be universally recognised.

Leadership begins with understanding self and others

The central fact about leadership is that true leaders are people who are bold enough to lead through understanding people not by attempting to lead by authority or ‘doing’.

The ‘doing’ path to leadership is symptomatic of recurring failure. People are people. We are not different nor have we suddenly become different. We are individuals and the leaders who understand themselves and others as individuals are the true leaders who will achieve greatness.

There are no new secrets to leadership;  the attributes of leadership are discoverable today. Knowing yourself is where you begin not copying what other people do or getting a leadership qualification.

It takes a special effort to discover your own leadership qualities but when this is done you will be in a better position to become a great leader.

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Reference: “In Place Of Folly” Norman Cousins ,Harper Brothers,1961