A few years ago, I led a discussion on leadership in academic institutions for a major national organization. I actually found it somewhat disappointing, even though I was the moderator and the audience (and panelists) said that they found that session remarkable. I had a panel of deans, directors and chairs of colleges, and they all mostly learned on the job, could not clearly express concepts of leadership, and did very little or no mentoring to train future leaders. I probably learned the most of anyone in the room! I think what was really remarkable was that none of these panelists was ever before asked to verbalize about leadership – how to acquire it, how to work with others and how to pass it on.
I worked on Wall St. from ‘93-98 and had a boss that was a Lt. Col. in the US Army Reserves. He was a true leader, and I still am in touch and affectionately call him “boss.” But he got his leadership training from the US military, who have very in-depth and methodical training in leadership. I’ve been similarly fascinated by the concept of leadership, having worked with so so many executives in the business world. Leadership reminds me of musical expression: our initial thought is that expressiveness is derived from your ability to express emotion, until you study with a master who teaches you the mechanics of phrasing and musicality, and you realize that your ability to express yourself emotionally is tied to understanding the very mechanical concepts of tension and release, chordal resolution, change of position, etc.
“Leadership” is very similar – understanding the underlying concepts that allow one to lead effectively – understanding human motivation, balancing staff priorities with well-being, etc. A lot of it is very unromantic as are many of the underlying concepts of expressive playing. A lot of leadership is intuition, but it is implemented through the use of well-defined techniques. Then there is that fine line between leadership and management. There are lots of effective managers that are good at those things you list in your second paragraph, but poor leaders. Merely being in a position of power does not automatically make people good managers or leaders – look at conductors….so many of them are both poor managers (poor time management, for example) and poor leaders (bully the orchestra by yelling, etc.).
There have often been described as three levels of leadership (yes, this bleeds across management, too):
- Apprentices that think that leadership is the sudden acquisition of power (”my way or the highway”) until they learn that they can issue orders until they are blue in the face, because when people don’t want to do something, they aren’t going to do it, no matter what you order them to do.
- Journeymen that look for ways to manipulate their staff so that they will do the things that they want them to do. My Wall St. boss used to marvel at our CTO, and say that “he could sleep with your wife and convince you that it was your idea.” Is that leadership, or salesmanship?
- Then the masters: they look to emphasize what people are good at and strengthen their weaknesses. They empower people to work to the best of their ability while setting them up for success, not failure. They also set the example, and show that they are willing to also roll up their sleeves so that success can be collective. We usually observe that leaders can motivate people to do their best. What is the essence of that motivation? Can one deconstruct that?
My boss from Wall St. always said he had three priorities for his staff (in order):
- Meet the objectives of the organization.
- Promote the careers of the people that worked for him, and
- Have fun.
He was and still is a great guy.