Stop Romancing the Leader and Love Leadership

No matter where you are on this planet, it has been hard to miss the unrest in the Arab world. Those of us in the West seem to revel in the uprisings and revolts in Egypt and Libya.

It’s the kind of natural joy you feel when the long suffering stand up and tackle an unjust leader down. A tyrannical leader, no matter whether he’s in the Middle East or in the corporate world, risks finding himself (or herself) in the midst of a revolt as we change our views of what leadership means.

I have had enough experience with corporate leaders to know that power can corrupt. So, it is easy for me to believe that dictators like Mubarak and Gadhafi needed to be shown the door.

And, I like to see ordinary people feeling empowered. It is especially inspiring to see young people tear down leaders who bullied and beat their way to the top of a hierarchy.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book on evolutionary leadership theory called “Selected, Why Some People lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters,” by Mark Van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja.

They contend many leaders fail because we choose our leaders based on what we needed back on the savannah, rather than what we need in the modern world.

Leadership Fallacies

We like our leaders to have charisma. We think it’s a proxy for leadership. We think a powerful personality will keep the group together and give us the “safety in numbers” we needed as hunter-gathers, scrounging around for food on the open plain.

Unfortunately, we often discover that charming exterior cloaks a vindictive nature.

We like our leaders to be tall, fit men that can protect the tribe. Even though, we don’t need their size to scare away predators these days. In fact, a little geek with good technological skills may be better equipped to lead us. Unfortunately we are still stuck on putting tall, fit men in charge.

As for the women, well, they used to be back at the tent cooking, cleaning, managing the children, and that is pretty much where they still are.

Minorities! Absolutely excluded regardless of their height! The hunter-gather group instincts tell us to distrust those who are different.

Now, of course, these are Neanderthal-type views with no justification in the modern world. Too bad these views from our primordial past still linger in the corporate air.

Let me take you back to “Selected.” The authors write that the 21st century is an opportunity to push the pause and reset button. They say we should abandon our “romance” about the importance of the leader at the helm. No need for a celebrity CEO and, in fact, anonymity is preferable.

Unsung Heroes Make the Best Decisions

Wow! What an idea. Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” argues unsung heroes, who make decisions based on what is good for the company (as opposed to what is good for them), get the best results. He cites Starbucks and Southwest Airlines as good examples.

I can tell you, from my own experience, that too many CEO’s are tempted to take the position that their interests are synonymous with the interest of the company and exclaim “What’s good for the boss will be good for the company.”

Power Offered will be Power Taken

The other problem with romancing the leader is that we imbue him with too much power. Timing is everything. Many leaders will happily take credit for things that are actually as a result of external conditions (such as strong global commodity markets for Saskatchewan’s natural resources).

Great leadership is about more than one figurehead. In fact, be suspicious if a company pays a CEO likes he’s the number one pick at draft time. It is a sure sign that they have forgotten the value of the team and are overly attached to the perceived contribution of one individual.

It is a recipe for failure.

Research shows that, the bigger the pay gap, the bigger the disconnect from those below. They empathize less with their subordinates and treat them less fairly, and it fosters the “kiss up and spit down” syndrome.

We can bypass these ancestral prejudices by being aware of them. Margaret Wheatley, a best-selling author and one of America’s most influential leadership philosophers, confirms this.

Leadership, not Leaders

Wheatley says that teams are quite capable of being self-managed and that we don’t require as much of leaders as we have historically believed.

We need to give up our search for the perfect leader and give up our urge to turn everything over to someone who will take care of us. In fact, she takes it one step further and says that leaders don’t have to design the organization; it will structure itself, provided we get to know ourselves and our organizations.

The first job of a leader, she says, is to be sure we know our customers, know one another and know why we’re in business. Everything else will follow.

The leader supports the process where people at all levels become leaders. He may salute this principal in public, but if he puts himself ahead of the company, if his pay is way out in front, and if he grabs credit for everything – time to declare that “the emperor has no clothes!”

The people in the streets of the Middle East are demonstrating for the West what it means to have leaders and followers doing leadership together. Real change is not achieved through fear from the top-down; it comes from shared vision, when people participate for the good of the majority.

Let’s forget our romantic illusions of having a tall man save us. Let’s hit the “reset” button and call forth our individual leadership capacity. We’ll be better equipped to save ourselves no matter where we live.