Sunday, August 8, 2010

"We did it ourselves."

The last time I taught a formal class on Leadership, one of the students withdrew because he wanted to read and discuss famous leaders and that was not how the class was structured. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned by studying individual leaders, but when I teach about leadership I actually have the opposite goal – to broaden our perspective of leadership and be able to see it as a dynamic relationship between the ‘leader’, the ‘follower’ and the situation.

Have you ever stood up in front of an audience or a class and tried to engage them in the presentation or in a class activity only to have the entire room sit and stare at you? If you have then you know that you are only as good a presenter or teacher as the interaction with the audience or class allows you to be. The same is true of leadership. It’s possible to have great leadership skills and then find yourself in a situation in which the followers stand in front of you with their arms folded (sometimes literally) and dare you to make a difference. The hard truth is that the leader can have great ideas, but if no one else thinks they’re great and no one goes to the trouble to try and implement these fine ideas, nothing will happen.

It’s intriguing to observe how this works. At the large staff meeting, The Leader, i.e., the person with the biggest title, introduces a new initiative to the leadership team; even better the leadership team develops this new initiative as a group. Every one is excited and ready to go. In my experience that’s when the real leaders of the organization make their presence felt. They are the ones who, in the midst of all the day-to-day tasks that have to be done, bring the new idea into reality. Meanwhile other department heads make half-hearted attempts or none at all. Now, in most organizations, The Leader has ways to encourage and compel implementation, but true success or failure is dependent on the number of people who choose (an important word) to find ways to move the new initiative forward. True success also depends on the number of people who are creative in fitting implementation into their areas of responsibility. Finally, true success depends on follower/leaders who let The Leader know when the ideas are not working in the real world and make helpful suggestions to adapt the concepts to make them work.

Leadership is a partnership. It takes leaders and followers working together in the situation in which they find themselves for good leadership to exist. That’s why for me, while it is interesting to study great leaders, if in that study you don’t pay attention to the situation and the other members of the organization, you will never have a true picture of leadership. As Lao-Tzu says in his famous 17th verse of the Tao Te Ching,

“The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'”

And they are correct.

Take care,


This translation of the Tao Te Ching comes from Wayne Dyer's Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao