“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln
Have you ever had a colleague who, once promoted, morphed into an unrecognizable despot? Or watched someone use their position to pursue a personal agenda at the expense of others? Ever have a manager who missed “the forest” by micromanaging very capable subordinates?
Are these failures of character? Perhaps in some cases, they are. Certainly newspapers are rife with examples of politicians and other leaders acting in self-interested, sometimes illegal, ways. Many times, however, I believe the failure lies not in character, but in capability: in not understanding what makes for an effective leader – or how to become one.
I remember watching in horror as my kind, sensitive, easygoing 4th grade son took on the leader role for a group problem-solving activity. He transformed into a pint-sized version of Genghis Khan. He barked orders, cut off discussion, and made decisions with zero input from his teammates. Where the heck did that come from? In debriefing the experience, my son explained that he thought that was what being a “leader” meant. He was only behaving as he thought he was expected to.
How many leaders in the workplace do the same? How many don’t take the time to collaborate because they are afraid it looks like they are not doing their job? After all, they are paid to provide the answers, aren’t they – not ask questions?!
Effective leaders are more focused on others than on self. Leaders who interpret disagreement as personal criticism, or involving others as an indication of weakness are doomed to failures of leadership. Effective leaders care about leaving people, teams, and the organization in a better place than they found them. These leaders believe in what others can accomplish given the right skills and support. And they are humble and wise enough to know that helping others excel and work together to accomplish important things is more valuable than making themselves appear indispensable. There is no “I” in “leader”.
If someone is absolutely unwilling to share decision-making, credit or opportunity, there is not much you can do to change that. However, for those open to the possibility of change, effective leadership can be learned. This kind of leadership lifts everyone – and the organization – to higher levels of capability, performance, and satisfaction. Imagine the possibilities!