Realistic Leadership

A Real Challenge . . .

If anyone were to tell you that it’s easy to be a leader in today’s business circumstances they’d be lying through their teeth. The ‘old soaks’, as they’re irreverently known in Brit speak, would love to persuade you that things were so much tougher in times past, when the world was young, men were men and the sun was so much hotter.

Codswallop! It simply isn’t true.

Leaders today are beset with challenges that were not even envisioned in days of yore. The world is definitely a more complex and tougher place and its demands are more substantial than at any time in known history.

As we all now know, there was a brief ‘honeymoon’ for businesses in the nineties when boards of directors became very narrow and singular in their perspectives and demanded nothing more from top leaders (CEOs and equivalents) than escalating financial dividends. The two problems with this though were – this high-level strategy initiated and sustained ‘driven’ implementation strategies which made life hell for all those below the CEO and it also encouraged unwarranted laxity on ethical and moral issues. Then the chickens came home to roost!

As a result of the Enron / debacles, the business arena has become substantially more transparent. At the same time technological complexity is increasing exponentially and market demands are creating escalating expectations. The customer is both educated in real time and seemingly insatiable in appetite.

Today, we are experiencing significant pressures to respond faster, with higher accuracy and sensitivity, to sustain our efforts over a broader range for longer periods and to be socially and environmentally responsible as never before. How will this end? There has to be either a renegotiation of standards or perhaps some break-through strategy that will allow us to continue to do more with less.

This, however, is simple linear thinking and it isn’t likely to resolve our dilemma; it will only take us along our current path but at an either faster or slower rate. What we really need is a dimensional shift!

How to Change Realities . . .

Firstly, what’s your ‘take’ on where we are right now?

There are many who assert that leaders are born, not made; a special breed where only the chosen few can claim legitimate membership. Others see leadership as a precise set of skills and strategies that anyone can learn, practice and demonstrate, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Beyond this, most of us think about being a leader; that it is a state that we need to attain; a role that we can play; a status that we can achieve. We own rather loose definitions too, on the grounds that leadership is ’situational’.

The premise and associated assumptions with these approaches is that leadership is a combination of qualities within the individual (inherent or acquired) and it should be expressed in proper ways to the benefit of others. Also we all acknowledge that leaders can be, and often are, appointed and that this bestows a special set of obligations and benefits; so the leadership role is structured, predictable and measurable, which means it can be assessed.

This all tends to make it rather static and unreal in my view. It suggests that it could be modified as a transactional process, improving it, either through progressive awareness or acquisition, and that just won’t cut it for me. Surely, we will need transformational change if we’re to get out of the rut we find ourselves in?

For such transformational change, I believe there are three approaches that we might profitably consider. These are:

  • Change our prime directive
  • Spread the load
  • Toughen our practices.

If we do all three, at one and the same time and on a concerted basis, we’ll invite synergy and attain a critical mass – enough impetus to shift, in a radical way, the way we think about and practice leadership. Let’s explore this.

A Different Perspective . . .

I would contend that leadership is not a state, nor can it be described as a set of qualities. It is a perspective (the way we frame realities) with associated perceptions (the values we ascribe to those perspectives). We’re all familiar with the idea that two or more people can observe a situation or circumstance at the same time and under identical conditions and yet draw completely different conclusions.

The point here is that all situations are neutral – it is we alone that attach values and meaning thereto. Consider the following story:

Shortly after Iqbal Masih was born in a small village in rural Pakistan, his father abandoned the family. Iqbal's mother struggled to support her children as a house-cleaner, but could not. When he was four years old, Iqbal was sold for $16 into bonded labour at a carpet factory. He worked 12 hours a day and was horribly undernourished and beaten by the foreman many times.

When Iqbal was nine years old, a local labour rights organization helped him escape the factory. He was given a place at a school for freed child laborers in Lahore where he would be safe. Iqbal began telling other child laborers about the law in Pakistan that made bonded labor illegal. They had never heard about this law. When children started to follow Iqbal's example and escape the factories, the owners threatened Iqbal and his family. But he didn't back down. At age 12, he travelled to Sweden and the U.S. to speak out against child labor. When he returned to Pakistan in April, 1995, Iqbal was shot and killed.

Iqbal's story reflects the lives of over 200 million children around the world who have been forced to give up school, sports and play, and sometimes even their families and homes, to work under dangerous, harmful and abusive conditions. After reading about Iqbal's life and death, Craig Kielburger started "Free The Children” to continue what Iqbal had started: children helping children be free to live better lives.

Child labor is a very well-known phenomenon in South Asia; it’s widely practiced. Was Iqbal the only one who knew that it is wrong? Was Craig Kielburger an exceptional child? Have their actions had an impact on current realities?

It would seem clear that what changed two likely ordinary children into leaders was that they started to look at commonplace events differently than others around them. They were and are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, each asserting that something had to change.

They were not simply voices in the wilderness, ranting and raving about injustices and inhumane practices. They are story tellers who have focused the desire for change that’s resident in other people and who then have begun to facilitate the creation of a sustainable new reality – that is, they’re leaders!

They are exceptional people, you say? Not so, consider the young man who is a ‘hellion’, living high and wide, spending his money on drink and good times, and totally irresponsible. Then he meets the girl of his dreams, they marry and start a family. In a few short months he changes from hellion into a sincere and responsible parent who works only for the future of his wife and child.

What changed? He didn’t become a different person; he simply began to look at the world differently. Things he had not valued in the past now became of paramount importance to him. He changed his focus and he worked to facilitate a new, sustainable reality. We have all been there!

A Plan of Action . . .

Back to our three points – our prime directive, spreading the load and toughening our practices. Would a little reflection on these points cause us to change our perspectives and perhaps to ascribe different values thereto?

No one would disagree that leadership can be a tool for positive and beneficial change – it can also be applied in other ways. Without the tool however, very little is likely to happen, for good or for evil. So, if leadership is a potentially good tool, we’ll need people to use it – that is, more leaders; for certain we do not have a sufficient number for our present needs, let alone escalating future needs.

It would make good sense then for us all to identify possible leaders and to encourage them to practice even more leadership. Lee Iacocca is reputed to have said, "Lead, follow or get out of the way!” Our way is clear, we must create other leaders and this is possibly the greatest contribution we could make as leaders ourselves.

The second point is to share the load, for you don’t need permission, a license, special knowledge or skills to offer leadership to others; you just need to respond by focusing their need – their desire for change, and then to help them by facilitating the creation of a sustainable new reality. Everyone can and should offer leadership when the occasion arises; all that’s needed is that you open yourself to look at the situation from a leadership perspective and contribute your strengths-in-action to assist with creating desired outcomes. Anyone can do this, at any time, and if you’re not ready to initiate it, then take the lead that’s offered by another. If we all take our turn, good things will happen!

When it comes to toughening our practices the issue boils down to our focus or perspective. If we are ‘other directed and self focused’ we’ll not offer our self as the leader; rather we’ll wait for someone else to initiate the needed action. If, on the other hand, we are ‘self directed and other aware’, we can rise to the occasion because we are focused on the need for change that’s resident in others, not on our self.

This isn’t rocket science but it will require some deliberate introspection to adjust to the desired ‘self directed / other aware’ state of mind. Dr Robert Quinn of Michigan’s School of Business has a very useful template for helping with this challenge.

The Bottom Line . . .

You won’t become a leader just by having the right genes or by studying other leaders and their concepts - although neither of these can be discounted entirely. To offer leadership all you have to do is to look at things differently, firstly by identifying the need for change that others are experiencing and encouraging them to focus to the point that action will follow. Then you can ensure the right outcomes will ensue by contributing to the creation of an improved condition for all concerned.

You and everyone else can do it; in every situation there are opportunities to make a difference. Your choice, and it really is a choice, is to offer focus and facilitation as the situation requires.

You can lead; you can follow; or you ought to stand aside so that others can.

Think about it!

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at