I recently met with a friend of mine who, because of his work, meets many people and especially many leaders. As we were talking about leadership, he began to discuss a concept that he had developed through observation of people in his many years of career. The concept is intriguing and is based on the fact that many confuse leadership with position. In other words, for instance, many assume that a CEO must be a leader, or a Mayor should be one. However, in his experience, this friend of mine found out, and continues to find out, that the majority of supposed leaders develop an anti-leadership consistent behaviour and become more preoccupied with personal interest and securing personal power, whatever that means. He went as far as identifying the traits of anti-leadership by observing the behaviour of those people and by association he also identified what leaders should be instead.
In discussing this concept further with him, I thought of a book I recently read titled “The Leader Who Had No Title” by Robin Sharma where the author makes the point, in a masterful storytelling style, that leadership and position – or title – are not necessarily related. Anyone can – and should – be a leader, and a title does not ensure inherent leadership – although we would hope that someone in a position of power would also be a leader. In his book, Sharma identifies four principles of true leadership which, if understood and practised, would bring the best out of people and foster more excellence and less mediocrity, more happiness and less negative conflict. Each of those principles is based on “rules” that, if followed, would help individuals to become true leaders.
But let us go back to my friend and his observations. He told me that he noticed that many of those that arrive to a position of importance – in other words near to or at the top of the career ladder – increasingly show a number of anti-leadership traits. He identified ten of them. The list goes as follows:
- Lack of integrity and not being trustworthy
- Not a team builder (promotes self and not the team)
- Weak value system (not always reliable, honest, respectful, or empathetic)
- Lack of good vision (not strategic, inspirational or passionate)
- Difficulty implementing and not persistent
- No recognition and development of talent
- Not technically knowledgeable or competent
- Not influential or enthusiastic (does not resolve conflict)
- No accountability or responsibility
- Inability to script and pursue change effectively.
Take all these negatives and turn them into the opposite and you have the competencies needed to be a good leader. I confessed to my friend that in my many years as an adult I noticed much of this anti-leadership in both life and work. I also told him, though, that in general individuals do not want to do a bad job or exercise unfair power towards others. In fact, I believe that people are inherently good. However, the temptation to be more selfish and less of a leader arises when pride and complacency ensue. So it is important that we remind ourselves, as often as possible, what true leadership means and practice humility.
In the last few weeks I came across a couple of talks that have resonated with me profoundly and tie into the concept of leadership and anti-leadership. The first one is from Dieter F. Uchtdorf, retired Vice President of Operations for Lufthansa and a pilot himself. He has recently spoken of regrets and resolutions and the following statement from him struck a chord with me: “So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that would bring us happiness: a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial. The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness. We do matter. We determine our happiness. You and I are ultimately in charge of our own happiness.” No matter what we do or what title we have, it is up to us to bring happiness into our lives. At the end of our mortal life, we will not take with us any possessions and pride in oneself will be irrelevant, but we do leave a legacy. In fact the real questions are: is the legacy I am leaving to posterity good or bad? How will I be remembered one day? Within us is the longing for being accepted for good things not the bad ones. Then we need to remind ourselves that every day we have an opportunity to make a difference and to increase the good we will leave to others one day.
Mr. Uchtdorf went on by sharing a personal experience: “My wife, Harriet, and I love riding our bicycles. It is wonderful to get out and enjoy the beauties of nature. We have certain routes we like to bike, but we don’t pay too much attention to how far we go or how fast we travel in comparison with other riders. However, occasionally I think we should be a bit more competitive. I even think we could get a better time or ride at a higher speed if only we pushed ourselves a little more. And then sometimes I even make the big mistake of mentioning this idea to my wonderful wife. Her typical reaction to my suggestions of this nature is always very kind, very clear, and very direct. She smiles and says, “Dieter, it’s not a race; it’s a journey. Enjoy the moment.” How right she is! Sometimes in life we become so focused on the finish line that we fail to find joy in the journey. I don’t go cycling with my wife because I’m excited about finishing. I go because the experience of being with her is sweet and enjoyable.” Too many times, I should add, we only look at the result without taking the time to ponder over the process, which is where true experiential growth lies.
The second talk is from Linda K. Burton, who is the President of one of the biggest and oldest women organizations in the world. She spoke about service and how much it helps people to become selfless and more understanding. Her motto is “First observe, then serve.” Service is not provided at a convenient time but it has value when spontaneously given. She said: “Recently a flood opened many opportunities for [many] to first observe and then serve. Men, women, teenagers, and children saw businesses and homes destroyed and dropped everything to help clean and repair damaged structures. Some observed the need to help with the overwhelming task of doing laundry. Others painstakingly wiped down photographs, legal documents, letters, and other important papers and then carefully hung them out to dry to preserve whatever they could. Observing and then serving is not always convenient and doesn’t always fit our own timetable.”
Service, integrity, process, vision, honesty, and so forth: old names for timeless values. I truly believe there is a place for them even nowadays.