In the near future it could become almost impossible to lead any large or visible institution successfully. Perhaps we have already arrived at this point.
On the one hand society has become so open and connected real-time that no leader can hide their autocratic and abusive behaviour. Before long it leaks out or is openly exposed on some social media platform; perhaps even lands before an independent ombudsman. This is good, right?
On the other hand leaders are human and will make mistakes or step on some toes, make unpopular decisions, act decisively, especially during difficult times of being in survival mode. And we live in a society where anyone who takes offense – reasonably or unreasonably so – can expose the offender in an instant.
Adding to these dynamics, should the accusation of the offense turn out to be unreasonable due to an insecure recipient that simply didn’t get their way, we also know negative far exceeds positive news and retractions seldom reverse reputational or other damage.
So, should we allow leaders space to learn more, grow more, make some mistakes in the heat of battle and during unprecedented times where no one knows the future? Do we expect all leaders to have perfect interpersonal skills and never get upset, slightly angry or offend someone, for good or bad reason?
How do we balance the need for followers to have recourse against their powerful leaders while being reasonable towards the realities of leading a team into economic battle fields? Is it just the way the cookie crumbles for leaders that are often paid exorbitant salaries?
I want ordinary individuals to be able to take on their unreasonable, sometimes autocratic and even toxic leaders. I am a proponent of authentic leadership. But I also know the best authentic leader will make mistakes and be severely tested on an EQ level as they navigate through this VUCA world on steroids.
Perhaps this dilemma is a symptom of something bigger and deeper?
As individuals we want people around us to be patient and reasonable towards us. We want them to not judge us literally by every word and deed; to understand that the way I worded that email wasn’t exactly what I meant; or the word I chose during that particular heated discussion wasn’t the right choice because English isn’t my first language. We want the world to understand that we aren’t perfect even when our intentions are pure, despite how a certain written or verbal message came across.
But, heaven forbid if another person accidentally or ignorantly chose a wrong word in email or conversation; or portrayed inappropriate body language according to us? Others will NOT be given any space for mistakes or imperfections. Yet, please give me the space…
Folks, how do we handle such polarities? How do we become more patient towards one another? How do we get to live that simple principle of treating others as we want to be treated? What has caused us to drift from such a timeless truth? Have we become so sophisticated technologically that these things don’t matter any more? Has social media distanced and desensitized us as far as basic truths are concerned?
I guess in some cases it’s a principle of “it is easier to kill someone from a distance as a sniper or drone pilot than doing it in close combat, face to face”. We judge easily from a distance and assassinate people’s character and reputation on broad platforms, because it’s there for the taking; we can receive our moment of glory and attention. But then again, all this is also happening in close combat, inside organisations and political parties, amongst families.
What is happening?
From a leadership perspective I am kind of tired of platitudes like “great leaders do this and do that…” – all those academic answers we have at our finger tips, when reality is so much more complex. We seem to have missed the essence of how to become a great human being and by default a great leader. Society is paying an incalculable price for it.
It’s simple, great people, who by default are leaders:
1. Work tirelessly & passionately on understanding their technical environment wherein they find themselves, inside out.
2. Work tirelessly and passionately on being authentic; on being an emotionally, spiritually and physically balanced human being. They see themselves as their biggest project and strive to know ME inside out, to refine “my” weaknesses and leverage strengths and talents.
Do these two things sincerely and you will become a valuable human, citizen and leader. Those you lead will benefit and so will society.
Most leaders get far mostly by implementing the first point. They can make it all the way to the top by simply being the best at what they do technically and functionally. And then they find themselves in a position where ‘who they are’ matters more than ‘what they know’. Now they are in a highly visible and exposed space and because they never invested enough time into uncovering the true self, the real ME, they land in hot water when human interactions backfire.
Unfortunately we live in a society where even leaders that know themselves well and possess the best interpersonal skills will offend insecure, selfish and egotistical individuals who have the power to exploit societal fault lines. But hey, control what you can and manage the exception. Make sure you can look at yourself in the mirror every night and smile, feel happy with your effort. It may still become almost impossible to lead visible entities, but you will have given it your all.
And please let’s bring back the universal principle of treating others as we want to be treated. It really is simple. Before you respond in anger, ask: If I was in their position, how would I want to be treated? If we did this we may give leadership and followership a chance. After all, we are always a leader and a follower at the same time.
CEO & Co-Founder Leadership Platform
Founder Think Lead – A Global Digital Leadership Ecosystem
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Adriaan Groenewald is a Leadership Activist
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