What does leadership mean to you?
30/03/2011 § 5 Comments
“Resist more and obey less”. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I am thinking about leadership.
We are rather obsessed by leadership. There are countless books on leadership (at least 21,000 on Amazon, and that’s just under “business”), leadership training courses and I know several “leadership coaches”. Business executives are constantly exhorted to model themselves on Jack Welch, Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. Yet we seldom if ever talk about its opposite – conformity. This is striking since in most organisations it is conformity that is the norm, not leadership.
I need to be clear what I mean by leadership. Leadership is not the exclusive domain of those at the top of some organisational chart – the CEO, the Prime Minister, the headmistress. Anyone can be a leader: my granny, setting an inspiring example of how to live with love and humour; my 4 year old son who, when the spirit takes him, refuses to do what he is told (and drives his parents mad, but I wouldn’t have him any other way); Grace Darling, rowing out to rescue 9 sailors from drowning; Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man.
To me, leadership is closely linked to integrity – it is about being true to yourself, having the courage of your convictions. It comes from a place of love and trust, a belief in the fundamental rightness of the universe that gives you the confidence to be who you are, not who you think you should be.
Organisations are very good at suppressing leadership, at all levels. It was part of the original design brief for the corporate form, to make sure the owners can exercise control over the company. A little bit of control is not a bad thing, when done in the right way. After all, I have to exert some control over my son to stop him running out into the road, or eating 6 ice-creams a day. But too often the control is restricting and prevents people achieving their potential. After all, those doing the controlling are fellow human beings – just because they are more senior, or have more experience, or are better at playing politics, what gives them to right to tell others what to do?
Of course some people like being controlled. They have a deep need for it and really struggle in an environment where there are few boundaries. I remember interviewing a senior executive at one large German retailer that was known for giving considerable authority to store managers. This gave them real resilience, allowing the business to cope much better than others in market downturns. But the executive explained to me that not all store managers were up for it. They had several cases where a store manager recruited from a competitor wanted to be told what to do, and eventually had to leave – he couldn’t cope with such levels of freedom.
I suppose I have been thinking so much about leadership recently because I have been considering re-engaging in some way with large corporations, the world I left 9 years ago. It is a strangely scary thought.
In the early part of my corporate career I definitely chose conformity over leadership. I blindly accepted the corporate creed, buying into the notions that limitless growth is both desirable and achievable, and that putting shareholder value first is a perfectly sensible and indeed moral thing to do.
Later on, life became more complicated for me, as I started to question these central tenets of corporate life. Yet I felt intimidated by the enormous power of the corporate machine and didn’t dare to speak my mind. I would discreetly buy my fair trade products but not dare to question our own aggressive purchasing policies.
Part of the reason for not speaking out was that I wouldn’t have known what to say. But mainly, I suspect, I doubted my own leadership. I lacked the self-belief to stand up and ask challenging questions to which I had no answers. In fact I can now see that this willingness to go into the unknown is one of the key tests of leadership. Rosa Parks couldn’t have known what the consequences of her action might be. But she was willing to act, and then trust.
Still I have this nagging doubt: if I were to re-enter the corporate world, would I lose my integrity? Would I be obliged to leave my values at the door, to pretend to be someone I am not. Would I become corrupted?
Yet the answer to this is clear. If I am called to do it, I have to try. To turn my back on leadership is to turn my back on life. The only way of being sure of avoiding failure is not to try in the first place.
Besides, large businesses are absolutely crying out for some real leadership. It is time that more of us stepped up, into that scary, vulnerable place where we really find what we are made of.
This is what leadership means to me. What does it mean to you?