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Is “Leadership” Just Another Pretty Word?

Has “leadership” become another over-used word, its true meaning becoming misconstrued in practice?

There are so many inspirational quotes and articles written about leadership, and the difference between a boss and leader. And although many of these articles are great, I get the feeling that often times “leadership” is used as a sexy buzz word or concept, with little reality behind it. What actually happens in everyday life at work for most of us? Do we actually see inspirational leaders where we work, or are we experiencing a super-competitive and many times ruthless “get ahead or be stepped on” environment?

Even if there is an explosion of information about leadership – seminars, TED talks, articles, et cetera – I don’t see a commensurate rise in leaders or even good bosses/managers in reality. Like most things on social media, we have created an environment of smoke and mirrors, where we talk the talk, but not really walk the walk. It has become more about creating and sustaining an image than it is about creating sustainable working relationships, or dare I say, real camaraderie in the work place.

Is “leadership” now just another shiny status to chase in order to feel validated or popular, like being a “star” or an “influencer?” Whatever happened to putting in the hard work, learning more, striving to get along better? It’s the genuine self-check that I see lacking – you are responsible to become better because you want to be better for yourself and because it’s the right thing to do, not for others’ recognition. Sure, recognition is great but what value does it have if it’s not coming from a place of reality?

Even though “leadership” usually has a positive connotation, bad leaders do exist. They are leaders in the sense that many people follow their direction and even admire them. As human nature will have it and plenty of examples in history show it, negative ideas can sometimes catch on faster than good ones. Is popularity a good measure of leadership? The word “influencer” has been thrown around quite a bit in today’s world and many young people aspire to be that. But I see it as just a flash in the pan, without much substance behind it. We measure the “followers” but are unaware of the non-follower numbers. Of course, as a marketer, I see the value of an “influencer” to a business trying to promote their products or services, but at an existential level, I can’t help but see the shallow and transitory essence of such “personalities.”

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True leaders are not a common occurrence. It’s been argued that most leaders have some innate qualities, while they can improve with conscious effort and practice. We all can and should strive to be better, to be more aware of how to work well with others, and find ways to gain acceptance of/support for our ideas rather than to impose them on others. The reality is that not everyone will be a leader on a large scale or in an uber-inspirational way like Gandhi or Mandela, but they can work toward becoming better bosses, managers, or leaders.

As I see it, there are several traits and skills that someone in a position of power should have:

  • Vision – the ability to see the big picture and imagine the possibilities
  • Realism – the ability to know the available resources and constraints
  • Resourcefulness – the ability to find resource to remove obstacles
  • Knowledge – a solid education and experience, along with proof of success in their field
  • Communication skills – the ability to communicate the vision to their team
  • Empathy – the ability to relate to others and the willingness to see others’ points of view
  • Confidence – the ability to hire the right people and the confidence to allow them to do their jobs
  • Innovative spirit – the ability to see things from a different and resourceful perspective
  • Motivational ability – by this I don’t mean cheerleader drills. This is more about showing professional and personal respect towards employees and colleagues. It’s about being interested in developing your employees. It’s about setting a good example, having strong ethical values, and living them.
  • ROI mindset – the ability to facilitate and drive positive results for the company served, as well as its people.

On the flip side, here are some signs of a bad bosses/managers/leaders:

  • Misappropriation of ideas, not giving credit where it’s due, or giving false credit to “pet” employees.
  • Surrounding themselves with “yes” men/women and distancing themselves from anyone who questions their decisions.
  • Acting charming on the surface, but ruthless in private.
  • Doing anything to create and maintain a glowing image of themselves, while having others make the unpopular decisions for them.
  • Undermining others in order to gain power.
  • Micro-managing employees.

I recently watched a video about bullying in the work place by psychopathic boss figures. The video contained interesting scientific information about the double-digit impact that a mere 1% of such bosses have on business in Australia and the UK. Although the impact on the businesses is staggering, the scarier (and harder-to-measure) impact is on the individual workers’ lives. It is frightening how easy it is for a bad boss to destroy someone’s years of hard work and dedication, reputation, and even career. Some may say the blame cannot be attributed to one person alone. I agree. The enablers and supporters of such behavior are also to blame. However, it is the person in a position of power who sets the tone for all the others. This type of leadership is toxic, not only to an individual employee who most often leaves the company, but to the company itself in the long run.

Success climbing the corporate ladder doesn’t make one a leader, much less a good one. Good leaders don’t use manipulation to gain traction for their ideas, they use inspiration. Good leadership means doing the right thing for the right reasons and for the greater good. It means succeeding without the use of unethical subterfuge, without having to step on others. Being a good leader doesn’t mean you’re always right, it means that you are humble enough to acknowledge that you are human, and that you can learn something from the people around you – especially if you hire competent individuals.

Leadership should be real, genuine, and not just a mask disguising an individual’s thirst for personal power. Good leaders seek and see win-win solutions. There is a lot of talk about toxic people in the work place, often associating the attribute with someone who complains. This might be a shallow interpretation of reality, and may be the sign of a “head-in-the-sand” approach to business. Although some people complain just to create drama or to make themselves feel important, I believe that it’s critical to be realistic. Things in the work place are never perfect, because humans are not perfect. Being able to foresee pitfalls allows you to be prepared to overcome them. So, when you look around your company, be sure you make the distinction between a truly “negative” person and someone who is trying to solve a problem. The really dangerous “toxic” people are the individuals in positions of power who are there for the wrong reasons, who can damage a company from the inside with long-term repercussions.

I believe there is a dire need for “real” – real people, real questions, real answers, and hopefully real solutions. Leadership is not just another pretty buzz word. One can certainly aspire to be a leader, but it should be driven by a desire for self-improvement, and a dedication to a higher and positive cause. Perhaps what we need to do is take a step back from the whirlwind of information about leadership and practice some introspection. Let’s pause and reflect on our own values and motivations. Are we doing things for the right reasons? Are we acting on ethical values in a consistent manner? Are we rewarding the right behaviors both at home and at work? Are we falling into the trap of chasing a shiny image for ourselves at someone else’s expense, or are we dedicated to genuine self-improvement, and growth as humans and as professionals?

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