By Eoin Kennedy
You have probably hear the words before ‘I am now on the leadership team’. Although I am truly happy for my friends and colleagues who achieve this lofty title – through hard work, skill, determination, courage and skill, I am often uncomfortable with the sense of permanency. The concept that leadership is a destination, an ultimate place to be, can also bring a set of problems. It can demeanour the contributions of leading from behind and proposes a sense of rigidity that removes the flexibility to retire from leadership, whilst still potentially delivering more to the organisation.
The rise to Leadership, if it has only one directional flow, can sometimes be the wrong thing.
In order to explain what I mean I need to bring you through the good, bad and ugly of leadership.
Becoming part of a leadership team from middle management to board level is an incredible experience. It opens the opportunity to bring real change, to channel fresh ideas and experience towards crafting a new vision and building the structures for executing them through strategy and tactics for growth.
It is also a new learning experience. Leaders are exposed to the raw mechanics of an organisation from financial, personnel through to technology. They are offered control of the levers that can have profound impact on markets, customers, the future of the company, the staff and stakeholders. This power is very attractive and with it comes prestige. Seeing ones ideas put into action is extremely gratifying, having it acknowledged within your organisation and by peers is additive and it being matched by financial rewards is intoxicating.
A sense of enduring camaraderie also exists within leadership teams, strengthened by the weight of responsibility it entails.
The ascension to leadership, although a daunting experience, can sometimes be very underwhelming. The necessary exposure to raw data from the tedium of financial spreadsheet, personnel issues to operational matters can differ from the high octane expectations.
Moving from the ranks of colleagues to becoming someone boss can sour relationships very fast. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ perspective rarely gets beyond a short honeymoon period. Leadership can involve difficult decisions and this can further compound the friction. Former colleagues claim you have changed and bundle you with any negative connotations of management. Knowing you are the source of chatter, something you probably participated in, can be very difficult. This sense of isolation increases the closer you get to the top.
The role also comes with the burden of responsibility. As a leader you need to make the best decisions for the organisation, in fact you are normally legally responsible to do so, regardless of how unpopular it may make you.
Leaders rarely have the access to crystal balls and many decisions, although well informed, are made without knowing the true consequences and impact but they are still held accountable by them.
Sometimes organisation promote people to leadership positions purely out of fear of losing them, which in extreme situations can make a toxic person even more dangerous.
The struggle to attain leadership can involve many hard personal sacrifices so the notion of losing it can elicit bad behaviour. A leader holding on to power beyond their best by date can sometimes focus their energy on maintaining that status rather than channelling them into the good of the organisation. Recent presidential elections have shown how this can be disastrous for an entire nation and beyond. Battles for power at board tables tend to pander to ego rather than company benefit.
Camaraderie within leadership can also create a bubble that fosters group think which can ignore reality. Powerful individuals can quell divergent thinking and a lack of courage to confront wrong doing makes team leaders complicit in poor decision making. Money, power and status are powerful drugs that can dull minds and be hard to ween oneself off. Sometimes those in power starve all others of knowledge merely to stay in leadership, to the determent of the organisation.
New Mindsets and Models Are Needed
There are many different flavours of leadership and libraries overflow with’ how to’ text books on the topic but I am always struck by the notion that once a leader, always a leader. The title is everything. Why does the definition of success have to be leadership? Does it have to be a one way street? Let me explain with examples.
My wife is a healthcare professional and took a leadership position which was recognised as a manager. She experienced much of what I described above and made the decision to return to her previous position as a regular staff member. In her current role she undoubtedly acts a leader, something acknowledged daily by her colleagues who turn to her continually. This is mainly based upon her vast years of experience but also her willingness to challenge seniority due to her commitment to deliver the best care to the patients she serves. She undoubtedly makes her managers job easier but without formal acknowledgement. To me the shackles of formal leadership mean the service has missed out. Her story is not unique.
I also worked with one multinational who operated a ‘reduction in force’ whereby someone could rise to leadership position, which in this case brought with it the glass fronted office, but could at a later time return back to the regular pool of the windowless desks. Although to some this was viewed as a fall from grace or not being able to ‘hack it’ but to me it was eye opening. You could gain leadership experience and contribute but also bring that unique experience back to doing your job even better. Why does a leader have to paid more and pampered better than those who prop them up. Surely having someone to guide you on a leadership journey who has been there before can only make better leaders. The wisest person does not necessarily need the title but neither should they suffer lower status or financial reward.
I have had many different experiences of leadership. As a board member I have had to digest and trawl the data, make decisions, contribute to overall company objectives and lead a team. As a founder of some start ups I co-lead lead a teams of two. This served me well as an independent consultant, acting as guiding ear to other leaders, aside from the core service I was contracted to deliver. My experience meant I understood the difficulties of their role and my independence meant I could seamlessly drift, almost like proxy leadership. As a father I have floating leadership with my wife. In my current role I am a team member with no formal leadership role. However I believe my previous experiences mean I can take the dual role of being lead and actively support those in the leadership positions. This is made easier by the ‘service leadership’ perspective taken by the person I report into. I understand what I have been insulated from by some else taking the leadership mantle – frequently hours of meetings and translating company policy into meaningful instructions. Future leadership might be in my future or I might lead from behind but either way, having previous leadership roles means I am better at my job.
My story is not unique. I have many friends who have gone from leadership roles to team members. What I witness is leaders who struggle with how to manage them, knowing they could do their job, rather than how to harness them to make themselves better leaders.
My main point is this. Leadership is something to strive for but it should not be viewed as the end point. It should not be that static, with the only next desirable position being the next step up the ladder. Nor should it viewed as a game of snake and ladders where the only route down is punishment. It should pulse and surge according to ones life stage, energy levels and desire to leader. Rather than a bell curve it should follow the innovation s curve. True ‘service leadership’ is potentially hampered by rigidity of tenure.
I would like to propose that formal leadership can be fluid with ex leaders becoming ‘Proxy leaders’ who can lead from behind or ‘transient leaders’ who merely stepping back and return later to the role. We just need to make it attractive.