I know that those of you who consider yourselves leaders are not surprised that leaders are people. Among students in my leadership classes and among my coaching clients who aspire to be leaders, however, I am frequently faced with skepticism when I make this statement. Why is that?
First of all, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, leaders who are leaders because of personal power, are seen as “people.” By “people” I mean that they think, they understand, they reason, and most important, they feel. And their followers know and believe that. It is the leaders who are “leaders” because of positional power whose “people-ness” is questioned. (We’ll discuss whether you are ever a ‘leader’ because of position in another post.) We humans operate on assumptions and mindsets most of the time–people at the top of the organization are ‘them’ not ‘us’. (Top of the organization is relative too–if you are above me in the organizational hierarchy, I think of you as at the ‘top.’) If I do NOT have a relationship with you–either based on knowing you, respecting you, liking you, or needing you–then I apply all the stereotypes that I hold about organizational leaders to you. Just as in the case of all stereotypes–if I know you, I don’t think you fit the stereotype.
I want to challenge leaders to think about what to do about this if what I say here is true. I also want to challenge aspiring leaders to think about what to do about this if it is true that leaders are people, just like you.
Make sure people know you. Leadership is relationship based. There are lots of ways for someone to know you–they can know your expertise (and respect it), they can trust you (and know they can count on you), they can admire what you’ve been through to get to where you are–if they know it (and respect that), they can depend on you to be reliable (and respect that). If the only relationship your followers have with you is based on your position on the org chart compared to their position on the org chart, then what you get from them will be limited to how much you are paying attention, how much they agree with you and how scary you are. None of those things last forever–or even for every long.
You need people to do things–the things you ask them to do–because they think they are the best things to do. You need them to think for themselves, take initiative, be creative, stick with things, and be confident. These are much more likely to happen if your people know that you’re a “people,” and not just a box above them on the org chart.
For Aspiring Leaders
So why does it matter that leaders think of themselves as people and all who work for them think of them as “them?” It is lonely to be a “them” who is trying to get something done. Did you ever think of that? Did you ever think of what it feels like to try to do a job and to be faced with mindless obedience? (Well, if you’re a narcissist, it probably feels pretty good–but for the rest of leaders–it’s not great.)
What about if the people who work for you treat you as trustworthy? With respect (that you can feel)? With honesty? With independent support? What do you think the leader’s response to this kind of treatment from you will be? The funny thing about trust–trusting grows trust–no matter which way it starts.
Followers have control over the relationship with their leaders too. Acting in the role you want can gradually build that role. Trusting can create being trusted. Independence can earn respect. Respect and trust are career enhancing.