Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stepped On Anyone's Toes Lately?

This past week I taught a leadership workshop called The Leadership Dance. I start this workshop by dividing the participants into small groups and asking them to write down their responses to the words leader and follower. They have only one minute for each word. I’ve done this exercise many times and of course there are differences among the groups, but there are more similarities. For example, the ‘leader’ lists have mostly positive words and the ‘follower’ lists have more negative words. Similarly, the ‘leader’ lists are almost always longer than the ‘follower’ lists. I ask participants to discuss the ideas and issues that caught their attention as they listened to the various lists. There are many conclusions to be drawn and nuances to be discussed and most groups do an excellent job of identifying them.

However, there are two concepts that usually fall to me to point out. The first is the fact that there are rarely any negative words on the leader list, but there are negative kinds of leadership. In a class on leadership the paradigm seems to be ‘leader equals good’ even though we all can list examples of leaders who led their followers over a cliff or leaders/bosses who are toxic and make it miserable to be part of the organization. There is a negative side to leadership and even the most good-hearted leader has to face the reality of the harm they can cause if they aren’t careful.

The second concept is the ‘leader’ list itself. There are variations of course, but those are just details. The aggregate list is a list of positive attributes that are just a little bit short of a job description that reads “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, …” The reality is that most leaders are human beings who can’t quite live up to the level that we tend to expect of leaders, at least not every day!would be different now.

And that’s one of the points the workshop is designed to teach - our expectations of leaders can be unreasonable. The reality is that leaders can’t dance alone. To be a great leader one needs great followers. And of course, the converse is true - it’s hard to be a great follower when you don’t have a strong leader. By the end of the workshop, that idea of leadership as a partnership has become very clear to participants. In fact one of my favorite comments from an earlier workshop was by a participant who said the list of words he would use to describe followers

On the dance floor, the leader starts with the left foot and the follower starts with the right foot. This minimizes the problem of stepping on each other's toes. In our leadership world, our words reflect our ideas and can determine our steps. If you find yourself unhappy with the leaders or the followers in your organization, maybe you should take a take a look at your ‘lists’. Do your words reflect unreasonable expectations of a leader? Are you seeing followers as subordinate? Dancing and Leading - both work best as partnerships and both take patience and attention. Stepped on any toes lately?

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