David Ben-Gurion once said he understood what it was to be a leader the day he realised there was nobody left but him to lead the way.
With the wealth of modern-day examples, so often highlighted by this business school or that economic forum, who’d a thought that David Ben-Gurion would have been the example that first came to mind when I started writing this post. Given my origins, Winston Churchill would have seemed more appropriate but there you are, each of us has a role model or a paradigm that has, whether we’ve understood it or not, had such a strong influence on our way of interpreting leadership.
Ben-Gurion’s reflection on what being a leader meant to him is powerful yet simple. It came at a crucial moment as he realised that it fell to him and him alone to assume the responsibility and to assure the perrenity of a cause.
Today, aspiring managers can learn about what, in theory, it takes to make a good leader, e.g. company values, applied ethics, one’s ethos, governance, empathy, experience, etc. They are all lessons worth learning, even if a certain triage is then needed to see clear but nothing prepares you for leadership like a challenge. Analysing the causes and effects of a crisis, determining the options & solutions and understanding that’s it’s you, not the guy next door, who has to assume the responsibility, especially when it’s painful, that’s being a leader.
A managing director once told me, it’s better to be regularly confronted with crisis situations and learn how to negotiate them, even at the cost of losing some feathers, than having it easy and then not knowing how to negotiate a crisis when it does happen. Being a leader is about making sure things go well and, as I read again recently, relying on more on delegation rather than micro-management, because what’s the point of having an employee if you don’t trust them to do the job.
What keeps you awake at night?
On the surface the rather banal question “What keeps you awake at night?” can hide a more significant purpose, that of seeing what’s occupying or pre-occupying a manager at any given time. It really is a rather subtle method of testing the aptitude of a manager to fulfill the role. Has a manager measured the importance, breadth, and depth of their role? Looked at all the angles, considered all the permutations & ramifications, outcomes & consequences and generally understood the scope of the job they’ve been assigned?
There’s one in each of us…
Is there a standard school of thought or a recommendation on how to be a leader? Should a leader show the way, lead from behind, or be everywhere at the same time, omnipresent and yet letting others do their job? Should a leader dominate, delegate or dispense guidance? Is the sign of a good leader knowing when to use all available levers? Here again, there is a multitude of “experts” spouting voicing opinions on the subject, look no further than here but seriously, for having read what the experts say, as well as from personal experience, the answer is no. It happens, and then it’s for you to step out of the anonymity and assure the transformation.
And if you have doubts about being a leader, feel coerced or influenced by others, are anxious about succeeding or feel you’re an impostor look to your role model or favourite paradigm and assume. You will grow into the role of leader as it will grow on you.
Meg and Elon, you and me.
The longer you look the more you will see all sorts of leaders, from the benevolent-looking patriarchs, and matriarchs, exuding business acumen …queue for the “quintessential” Steve Jobs quotation… to the mercurial, catch-me-if-you-can, entrepreneurs, always two step ahead of the curve. And then there’s the ordinary Joe & Jane Team Leader, invariably a step of two behind the curve – or so it seems, worrying about attaining objectives, assuring deliveries, filling quotas and mastering margins; slip-sliding between the strategy and the tactical, learning that having risen from the ranks, yesterday’s pals are today’s responsibilities and that diplomacy, tact, empathy, and politics go hand in hand with skills, experience, and expertise.
So who actually would want to be a leader? How do you become one? Where to start? Well, sometimes, mostly, it’s through blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes, it’s just by being in the right place at the right time or maybe in the wrong place at the right time.
Post Scriptum. Empathy: The fall from grace?
There was a time, not so very long ago when empathy was hailed as the discipline to use to support, not just leaders and managers but also for employees with aspirations in their everyday relations with others but then recently voices have been raised against empathy accusing it of being a cold callous tactic used to exploit situations others are in. Contrary to sympathy, the caring and understanding for the suffering of others, or compassion, the act of suffering together, empathy was synonym with the ability to objectively understand and relate to another’s standpoint. It allowed you to look at and determine where the other person stood (c.f. that rather banal “how’s it going” question?) and process that knowledge to achieve results.
Now it seems, this is not the case and those speaking out against the, by me, generally accepted and logical purpose of empathy, consider empathy and the use of Emotional Intelligence as a callous exploitation of a situation, invariably at the expense of others, to further their own hidden agenda. To the antagonists, I’d just like to say this: Use a tool, any tool badly and it will cut you. Use a tool the right way and it will do the job it was designed for.
(edited to include citation “Against empathy”)