Leadership Misunderstood

Without a doubt, the most common source of confusion that Cindy and I run into when working with larger groups ties to the team members who have no direct reports and feel like they aren’t leaders. While that’s something we address head-on as we kickoff almost every lesson we deliver, it’s a leadership myth that all but demands everyone’s attention!

I first heard John Maxwell share one of his most common phrases more than twenty years ago, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” As I think about it, I actually didn’t hear it. I read his words in chapter two of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, The Law of Influence. John gave context for that statement by sharing a story about his first role as a pastor and presiding over the first board meeting. While that meeting may have been his responsibility to open and close, a fellow named Claude led the meeting - because Claude had earned influence with the rest of the board and John had not at that point.

In far too many cases, we hear people make comments questioning their own leadership responsibility (and often even their potential to lead others) because they’re not in charge of anyone in their organizational structure. And unfortunately, we often see examples of folks in supervisory, management, and even executive roles who have earned very little influence with their teams but throw their positional authority around like the Lord Farquad character from Shrek

As we move forward here, I’m going to work to wreck those myths and make a case for how each of us have a responsibility for leading effectively from right where we are on any given day. Since all too few people do, there are people counting on me and you who may never benefit from authentic leadership otherwise.

What It Is AND What It’s Not…

If we’re going to have a real shot at debunking any of the common myths, it’s critical that we develop a firm understanding for what leadership is AND what leadership is not! And far too often, failing to have that clear understanding feeds those myths…

I’m sure you’ve experienced this just as much as I have, watching someone move into a position where they’re calling the shots and immediately beginning to throw around any weight they believe automatically accompanies the title. Unless they’ve at least started earning the influence I referenced before, barking orders that are solely backed by a shiny new title isn’t likely to get the greatest results over the long haul. While that approach may result in an initial uptick in activity - at least while that individual is looming over any of the unfortunate folks they see as their minions - it’s far less likely to yield the same performance once they’ve carried their whip to another area and it certainly doesn’t create a strong desire for anyone to stick around any longer than absolutely necessary!

I have no doubt that if you and I were to have a conversation over a cup of coffee, we could commiserate over the crazy examples we’ve seen far longer than the coffee would stay warm - even if it were in one of those mugs where it still burns you hours later! Recognizing what leadership is not is the easy part; it’s most certainly not a position, a title, or some random thing that’s dropped on any of us out of nowhere… Understanding what it is can be a bit more difficult though!

Let’s consider that statement I shared before from John Maxwell, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” While that sounds simple enough, I still believe it requires us to understand how that influence is earned. The more I’ve studied leadership, and specifically the best (and worst) leaders I’ve had the opportunity to be around, the more convinced I’ve become that authentic influence is only developed through our consistent behavior - specifically, our actions to serve others. Based on that, I’ll stress once more that I’ve seen tons of great people lead (read: positively influence) the people they interact with on a daily basis with no positional authority whatsoever!

As I often share from all the years I worked in behavior-based safety, the best part about focusing on behaviors is that they’re something we can see. When it comes to leadership, those behaviors are often something we can even feel! As we’re able to reduce - or even eliminate - some of the most common misconceptions about leadership in the workplace, we can begin building a foundation that produces results that are rarely achieved any other way - within our organization as well as for the clients and communities we serve so let’s look at why this matters…

How YOU Lead Matters!

Having addressed how the idea of leadership is so often misunderstood, tying back to some of the most common myths around leadership, and hashing out what it is and what it’s not, let’s dig into why it even matters before detailing some of the specifics you and I can each do to make the positive impact the people around us deserve from effective leadership.

In one of the last chapters of What’s Killing Your Profitability?, I referenced something I’ve heard John Maxwell comment on frequently over the last several years as he’s taught leadership at the very highest levels in countries around the world. John said what he sees all too often is leaving him “leadership sad,” meaning not nearly enough people in positions of authority are actually leading in a way that positively impacts the people who count on them. Through the interaction Cindy and I have had personally with Mark Cole over the last decade or so, we’ve heard him frequently emphasize that “everyone deserves to be led well!” (Not many know this yet but I can’t resist sharing it with you right now… Mark wrote the foreword to What’s Killing Your Profitability?)

You and I could both point to countless examples of people in positions of authority who are far more insistent on dictating commands than serving their teams in a way that empowers them to achieve outstanding results - even without me getting pissed off and going down the rabbit hole of all the poliTICKS putting far more effort into controlling their constituents and lining their own pockets than anything they could possibly do to earn authentic influence. With that being the case, and since just thinking about those poliTICKS annoys me, let’s stick with why the way you and I lead from right where we are matters so much to each person we interact with - regardless of any positional relationship we have with them…

It’s probably been 15 or 20 years ago but I still remember conversations with my Granny about the roles she was volunteering in. She lived in the independent living part of a large retirement community at the time. She was in her 80s and got around really well. She helped out in the community store for an hour or two a few days each week and she sat at the front desk for a couple of hours one evening each week, greeting visitors after the main doors were locked for the day. Granny was one the kindest people I’ve ever known, and she was also incredibly humble. She often said she knew she couldn’t do much at that point in her life but she was happy to help out where she could. The part that sticks with me the most was how caring she was and how many people made comments to me and Cindy about the impact her warm demeanor made in their day.

Leadership doesn’t have to be about control! In fact, I’d argue that Granny’s example makes a pretty strong case for how leadership is more about the lasting positive impact we can have on anyone we interact with than it is about being in charge. Make no mistake though, there are certainly times where leaders in any organization have to make hard decisions and have tough conversations. We’ll begin working through that soon. For now, I’ll just challenge you to consider how much more effective we can be in those difficult times when we’ve done the work in advance to earn authentic influence with the people around us - because that’s what I’ve seen help leaders be more effective than any level of power or authority…