Summer 2014
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The Public Manager

You Call Yourself a Leader? Here’s What a Follower Thinks

Friday, June 13, 2014

Not all managers are leaders. Follow these pragmatic propositions, told through the eyes of an employee, to make you a better leader.

"I am a senior level executive and the leader of this office. Why hasn't anyone asked for my opinion on how to proceed? It doesn't matter; I will give it anyway; I am a senior level executive." This is an actual statement from an individual who falsely identified himself as a leader.

His positional authority and yes men/women acolytes gave him a false sense of security regarding his knowledge, skills, and abilities. The fact that people acquiesced to his demands did not make him any more of a leader than being six foot seven makes an individual a professional athlete.

People followed him and did what they were told due to a sense of obligation and sometimes fear. They did not engage in such behavior because they wanted to do so. Self-preservation was the rule. Empowerment, autonomy, and considered thought prior to rendering judgment were nonexistent.

What Leadership Is Not

How can a leader do and be better? Let me first explicate nonleadership activities. Leadership is not homogenized knowledge. Leadership does not include engaging in pseudo-intellectual debates simply to hear your own voice. Leadership is not artificial inclusionary discussions when you already have the proposed answer, or the answer that fits your personal or political agenda.

Leadership is not histrionic portrayals of feigned anger or omniscience. Leadership is not abusive, contrived, Machiavellian, or deceitful. Leadership does not employ self-righteous declarations and holier-than-thou proclamations. Leadership does not include showing favoritism that is not merit based. Although cliché, the adage that "people don't leave organizations, they leave bosses" has merit.

Organizational climates can be positive and empowering, or they can be laced with negativity and demotivating situations that prove problematic and lead to irreparable organizational and relational damage. Some organizational leaders have a misconception that they have a positive attachment to individuals within the workforce, but their perceptions are often wildly inaccurate.

The paradoxical nature of leadership suggests that while it is possible that the actual leader is smarter than most people in the room, he should not act like it. Be of the team and for the team, not above the team. While leaders may have deeper understanding of what they want, they should embrace diversity of opinion and avoid groupthink.

Leadership is about adaptability, flexibility, and understanding your raison d'être. Leadership transcends hedonistic, individualistic, and narcissistic elements. It is servant based.

Serving others, encouraging their success, and offering a prescription for organizational success will create a platform for your success. As you continue your leadership journey, it is foundational that you are cognizant of the human complexity factor and execute effective human capital engineering efforts that will solidify your identification and inclusion as a leader.

Here are pragmatic propositions, told through the eyes of an employee, that can make you a better leader.

Human Capital Engineering

As a leader, it is integral that you employ behaviors that are above reproach. This is not to suggest that you exhibit immortal qualities, but it does propose that employees hold you to a higher standard of excellence.

As employees, we constantly watch you and pay attention to even the smallest of details. How we employees respond is positively correlated to how you lead.

Personal Leadership Qualities

The below discussion of expected behaviors is extensive and further validates the conception that leadership is not an easy task. Powerful and positive leadership is developed over time.

Individuals who aspire to call themselves leader or be considered a leader by others must engage in deliberate practice. One cannot merely hope to reach the summit of a mountain without moving in the appropriate direction.

Have integrity. As you transition from a marginal leader to the best leader that you can be, keep in mind that integrity is critical. People want to follow leaders that employ a strong value system and have certain non-negotiable principles.

Strong character, fairness, and servant leadership are elementally important. Honesty is the best policy when leading others.

Small leadership faux pas can be avoided and forgiven by forthright communication and interactions that mirror respect, propriety, and dignity. Do not offer excuses for mistakes. We all make mistakes. We just request that you accept responsibility and accountability when mistakes do arise, handle them appropriately, and move on.

Have vision. Tell us stories that capture our hearts and minds. We might not necessarily need to know where you are going, but we need to know that you know where you plan to take us.

Be fair in your dealings with peers, subordinates, and superiors. While it is acceptable to have different conversations with varied individuals, it is neither suitable nor appropriate to treat people differently because you deem someone to be of higher status or significance.

Be willing to listen and ask questions. We do not expect that you are omniscient. We are cognizant that your experiences are not all encompassing. We do expect, however, that you employ the necessary level of intellectual humility to heed sage counsel given by others, regardless of their title or perceived power and authority.

Engage in reflective practices that will enhance your self-awareness. Socrates opined that the unexamined life is not worth living. While his sentiment might be over-exaggerated, it is sublime in its simplicity and powerful in profundity. Listen to such sagacious counsel. Strive to know yourself better than anyone else and help others do the same.

Workplace Expectations

Employees also have expectations of their managers and leaders.

Lead by example. When you strive to do your best, so will we. Encourage social learning, Harold Jarche wrote in his 2010 whitepaper, "A Framework for Social Learning in the Enterprise." Leverage collective and experiential knowledge, Nancy Dixon wrote in her 2009 blog, "Three Eras of Knowledge Management."

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As individuals, it will take us significantly longer to address disparate issues. As a high-performing team that leverages networked intelligence, the probability of offering creative and sustainable solutions to diverse problem sets appreciably increases.

Promote interactional justice. The manner in which you talk with and treat people do not go unnoticed and are tasks that should not be taken lightly. Consider yourself a shepherd. Your stewardship over your flock is elementally important.

Unlike sheep, however, the human complexity factor cannot be discounted. Humans are likely to engage in deviant workplace behavior as an equity restoration mechanism if they are consistently threatened or treated with a lack of dignity, respect, and propriety.

Encourage collaboration. Cognitive diversity, civility of communication, plurality of expression, and salience of thought allow us to effectively achieve organizational objectives. Do not be afraid to hire or engage people who are better than you are. Doing so indicates that that you are secure in your abilities and aspire to build an ecosystem of trust, respect, and mutual admiration.

Do not vacillate when organizational restructure efforts will amplify the team dynamic and lead to increased productivity, trust, and interpersonal loyalty. Sometimes people need to be given the opportunity to excel elsewhere. Even if that is the case, treat those individuals with dignity, love, and respect, and help them as they work to find suitable employment opportunities that match their skill set and knowledge base.

Offer constructive, actionable feedback. Amorphous comments are not helpful. Concrete suggestions are preferred. Allow people to fail. Foster an environment in which taking risks is promoted and accepted. Encourage us to pay attention to the lessons learned and try again.


Practical Applications

What leaders do—how they apply leadership concepts—counts, too.

Engage in effective conflict management. Understand and disentangle intent from impact. Focus on interests versus positions. Listen. Acknowledge concerns. Ask questions. Reframe issues to better understand perspectives.

Separate the people from the problem, as Roger Fisher and William L. Ury wrote in Getting to Yes (2011). Work to define and execute mutually agreeable solutions. Do not project how you think an employee feels about a particular situation until you have engaged him or her in meaningful intellectual discourse. Assume noble intent and engage accordingly.

Do not be reductivist when explaining or working to resolve organizational issues. We are intelligent beings and have the capacity to understand. Give us the information and allow us to make the right decisions.

Understand that the proposed resolution to varied organizational issues must match the complexity, magnitude, intensity, and variety of the problem you are intending to solve. Do not make things harder than necessary, but take caution not to underestimate situations, especially when entering uncharted territory.

Offer an attractive incentive structure. When the goal is reached, do not move the finish line. If you do not reward high performers for doing well, being team players, and offering value, it is only logical to expect that the same level of output will decline.

"People will be highly motivated when they believe that their behavior will lead to certain rewards, that these rewards are worthwhile and valuable, and that they are able to perform at a level that will result in the attainment of rewards," according to W. Warner Burke (Organization Change: Theory and Practice, 2013). This is expectancy theory at its most fundamental level.

Understand that change is hard for some people, but do not settle for the status quo or inadvertently remain complicit in the perpetuation of normalized deviance. Communicate changes, explain how the changes will prove beneficial, anticipate resistance, offer viable alternatives, and do not push revolutionary change if it can be avoided.

Evolutionary change is better, because it affords people the opportunity to adjust and give closure to the "old way" of doing things. The degree of ease in which change initiatives are introduced and subsequently executed are positively correlated to the amount of choice individuals feel that they have during the implementation phase.

Consider making changes when things are going well. Psychologically and behaviorally, we can accept and execute change initiatives better when those changes take place in a positive, stable, non-chaotic environment instead of during turbulent and high-pressure periods caused by a constellation of internal or external pressures. Experiential, anecdotal, and empirical evidence suggest that people do not categorically resist change initiatives, but rather the imposition of change. Burke advised that when people feel as if their freedom is in jeopardy, the immediate reaction is likely to be an attempt to regain the feeling of freedom.

Commit to continuous learning and self-improvement. Create an environment that promotes the same. Insist on an ethical climate, collaboration, creativity, truth, mutual respect, high individual performance, and teamwork. Do not be silent on issues of importance.

Indifference, apathy, and insouciance are neither welcomed nor well received. Be willing to stand alone. Your team will respect you for it and will not leave you. Organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and loyalty will increase not because individuals necessarily care about the company, but because they care about you.

Finally, be balanced. Strive to live a harmonious life. Do not strive to gain the world and all its material possessions, but lose your soul in the process. Maintain a sense of family, community, and commitment to the success of others. That's whom we want to follow. Set an example. Remain accountable. Be a leader.

Do these things and your employees will be willing to help you. They will stick by your side through the toughest of times. When you believe in us, we will believe in you.

If people follow because they want to and not due to a sense of obligation, then you will have permission to call yourself a leader.

About the Author

Charles Thomas, Jr., is a senior consultant at LMI, focusing on the Intelligence Community. As an interdisciplinary scholar, he studies leadership and human behavior within an organizational context, micro-level influence strategies and tactics, and effective conflict-engagement techniques. He can be reached at [email protected].

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