Aside

It’s the Leadership, Stupid

The morning coffee break had wrapped up and we were back at it, involved in a deep discussion. Some people were at the whiteboard, some debating one another, and some listening attentively as we batted an issue around the room.

The door to the conference room swung open and it seemed that a new member was joining the meeting. That is, until he didn’t. He entered the room, but made no eye contact with either the group leader or the facilitator. He took one of the chairs in the main circle, but immediately grabbed a mobile device from his briefcase. Physically, he was in the room. But mentally, he never joined the meeting or tackled the problem we were trying to solve.

Later, when there was a key decision to be made, someone interrupted this person to ask his opinion. And that’s when I learned that he was “the leader” of this initiative. At least, he was supposed to be.

It would be easy to dismiss his behavior as poor manners, a busy executive doing his best. You might even think I’m picking on the person, since each of us has done this to some degree or another. Yes, we all hate to go to meetings. Yes, we all have too much to do. Yes, we are all anxious that our inbox is being filled while we’re away from our desks.

But to excuse this behavior misses a key point: how small actions lead to big outcomes. Dismissing this behavior leads to a culture none of us want. It misses how micro-actions like this add up to an ensuing result none of us want.

And we know better than to let that happen.

Or do we? Do you believe leadership is more than just a spot on the org chart, or a specific title, or funding a project, or answering a key question, or having responsibility for particular decisions? Isn’t leadership the thing that’s missing right now? In our uncertain, unstable, London rioting, S&P downgrading, stock plummeting world? Organizations and communities are all experiencing turbulence. Millions of people have lost their jobs, or lost the roof over their head, and many more are watching helplessly as their retirement savings dwindle away.

As Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes point out in Credibility, “The entire economic system is based on trust; it is not based on the price-earnings ratio or income statements or many other rational concept we talk about. It’s based on whether we believe in the numbers and the people who are supplying them.”

Trust. We know it when we see it.

Wherever we look, we see problems of leadership. Our economy, our companies, our people are suffering. And I wonder if it is because we don’t see how each of us can make a difference by demanding more of our leaders – and demanding more of ourselves as leaders.  When some of us come to meetings and stare at our smartphones and the rest of us shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves, “Well that’s just the boss… and we can’t change him,” we are perpetuating a culture of dis-innovation, of failure.

Traditional notions of leadership are elitist, holding that not everyone can be a leader, that leadership is reserved for those with the right connections, or from the right school. And once you’ve been made a leader, that’s it; you’ve “arrived.”

But we know better. We know that becoming a leader is the start of something, not its culmination. We need leaders who champion ideas, who create things, who fuel cultures of innovation so we can all contribute our biggest and best selves. We need leaders working with us to create, inspire, and show us strength of character in these times.

Leadership is not an occasional task. It’s a way of being. Leadership is not a job or a title, but the set of micro actions we take every day. They add up. Leaders don’t just make an appearance to be able to say they were there. No, no no.  Leaders show up having dealt with their other obligations so they can be fully engaged — to participate, to co-create, to inspire. To lead.

The one thing leaders don’t do is to check out.  Especially now, when we need leadership more than ever. Leadership is an always-on role; always-on does not mean always-emailing. So let’s put down our smartphones, and start living up to our roles as leaders. And when we show up to work, let’s show up. Everything is counting on it.

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I treat the posts I do with my Harvard Business Review editors a little differently by asking you to go direct to the original post to add comments. That way the conversation can continue in 1 place.

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One Response:

  1. Chris F Harvey. September 24, 2011 at 6:10 am  |  

    Love this quote: “Leadership is not an occasional task. It’s a way of being.”

    It’s the small things that matter. The leader paying more attention to his mobile device than to his staff in the meeting was sending a corrosive message to his team — “Neither you or this project are important.”

    95% of organizations in the world are crying out for more effective leadership. Human beings are crying out to feel involved, important and recognized for their contributions.

    It’s so easy to change. All it takes is small actions, accumulated over time. “A way of being.”

    Reply

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