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Showing Leadership

When we think about leadership we envisage being in charge of a group, not how to show leadership viewed as a discrete act. This is hugely disempowering. First, we overlook occasional acts of leadership shown by people who don't have what it takes to BE a leader, including ourselves.

Second, we put a halo on the heads of those who can be leaders, thus discounting their ineffective acts of leadership and expecting too much of them. The more we look up to such leaders, the more we disempower ourselves. With the drastic shortage of leaders, we must start recognizing discrete acts of leadership shown by all employees including ourselves.

Being a Leader

Being a leader is all-or-nothing. People have what it takes to get to the top or they don't. Not everyone can be a chief executive and a team has only one leader. The search for that elusive star to put on a pedestal is never ending. We are inclined to idealize leaders, especially politicians and senior executives. Putting a halo on their heads means exaggerating their good qualities and discounting their weaknesses. The stronger our desire for heroic leaders, the more we expect of them, and the less we expect of ourselves. This is the main reason for the scarcity of leaders today—very few can live up to such unrealistic expectations. Today's rapid pace, high pressure to deliver, and relentless change combine to erode our confidence. Thus we pine for a white knight to solve our problems and soothe our anxieties hence disempowering ourselves.

Restricting leadership to formal roles is also disempowering because it can only be shown downwards; it's a one-way street. Leadership so defined is about getting work done through the leader's team. On this view, there can be no bottom-up or sideways leadership and those who aren't bosses can't show leadership at all. So-called "informal leadership" is as role-based as formal leadership: both mean being in charge.

Showing Leadership

Leadership can be shown across a wide range of issues, from promoting a new vision to small scale improvements. Leadership is an influence process but chief executives aren't constantly influencing people. Because executives are managers by virtue of their roles, they are responsible for work on night shifts even while at home asleep. But they can only show leadership when they are fully awake and actively influencing people to change direction. Focusing on the discrete actions of executives makes it easier to assess each act on its own merit instead of judging the person as a whole. This is empowering because it reduces our expectations of people in high places. Thinking in terms of discrete acts of leadership enables us to see ourselves and our colleagues as occasionally showing some leadership.

How to Show Leadership

How many times a day do you influence colleagues to do something different? This is not about influencing them to do something for you but rather to make a change for the good of the team or business. Maybe you influenced your boss to modify a process that wasn't working or colleagues to adopt a new system. Setting an example in any number of ways shows leadership to others, such as using resources less wastefully, serving customers better or communicating more openly. If you haven't thought of such small scale influence as leadership, it's because you think only in terms of being a leader and at the heroic and of the spectrum. The empowering outcome of this new perspective is that you can show leadership to your managers just as readily as they can show leadership to you. It's about having an impact, not a matter of being in a privileged position. Seeing how you can show leadership upwards is also empowering because it reduces the gap between you and the formal leaders above you. If you can't lead upwards, you naturally feel powerless and dependent on management to do the right thing.

How Leadership is Shown

Leadership works through influence. It's easier to see how it works by talking about a similar albeit different type of influence: selling. The difference is that selling is self-interested, leadership is not. There are acts of selling, but nothing is sold unless there is a corresponding act of buying. Similarly, an act of leadership is only complete if there is an act of following. Bear in mind that leaders have followers but discrete acts of leadership entail only discrete acts of following.  But, you object, isn't it necessary to have a grand vision or inspiring influencing skills to show even a small act of leadership?  No. And this is another empowering benefit of thinking in terms of leadership acts. High profile leaders like chief executives or heads of countries need to be visionary only because they are often promoting a large scale change or advocating fundamentally new values on issues where there is strong resistance. They also need to be visionary to get chosen over stiff competition for high office in the first place, which is why being a leader isn't for everyone.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might be promoting a small scale, local change where some or all of the following conditions hold:

  1. The content of your idea is so compelling, it virtually sells itself.
  2. Those you want to lead are complete opportunists, hence resistance is low.
  3. The change does not counter any highly entrenched notion so again resistance is low.
  4. You might have a strong business case or can demonstrate the merits of your proposal.

In this context, you might not need to be visionary or inspirational. This is empowering because it shows that all employees can show some small scale, local leadership even if they are not interested in, or capable of, being a leader. You might scoff at the idea that promoting a minor change should be dignified by calling it leadership. But why do you only recognize leadership that is at the heroic end of the scale?

Benefits of Focusing on Acts of Leadership

Thinking in terms of acts of leadership brings the whole process down to earth; it demystifies leadership. Isn't it a bit patronizing to say that your managers show leadership to you but you can only "influence" them, that you can't show leadership bottom-up because you can only make "suggestions" for the "real leaders" to decide upon? What is more disempowering than this way of thinking?

This perspective is also liberating for executives. Now they don't need to carry the whole load of showing leadership. They can look to all employees to show a fair share of leadership too.

Showing More Leadership

The key is to search constantly for "leadership opportunities," anything that's not working or could be improved. Depending on the scale of the change you want to promote and the degree of resistance, you need two things: (1) courage and (2) a good idea backed by a strong business case. Minimal courage is needed if the proposed change is minor and/or resistance is low. Organizations increasingly value "evidence based" decision making which means that providing hard evidence is often more impactful than how you present it. This is empowering in a knowledge driven arena where substance or content is increasingly valued over form or style. You can have a leadership impact with a strong case even if you have little charisma. If employees seen as technical geeks can show such leadership by promoting a new product, how empowering is that?

This article was first published in www.management-issues. comJanuary 18, 2010.

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