Life Size Leadership

LifeSize

“I want to be the leader!” called out a little girl as she got on her bike. “I want to be the leader!” yelled another girl. As the group of young kids headed off on another adventure I stood there pondering this passionate display of leadership that was so incredibly full of life. And I wondered why it shrinks as we get older.

How big is leadership? It’s bigger than even youthful exuberance and confidence. It’s as big as life. Because leadership is life. We are born with an innate desire for leadership that comes from the basic instinct to adapt and grow and become.

But then we begin to stuff it into organizational boxes and build walls around it. Pretty soon the walls restrict leadership to a select chosen few and the sign on the door reads, “Managers only.” For all the unchosen, “I want to be a  leader!” is soon replaced with “It’s not my job,” “I don’t have the authority,” or “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”

How do we take down these walls and bring leadership back to life?

Leadership is bigger than management. When you talk about management, call it management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about really good management, call it good management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about upper management, call it upper management or executive management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. Talk about how important it is for managers to be leaders but don’t suggest that only managers can be leaders. Down comes a wall.

Leadership is bigger than business. Talk about the role of leadership in business. But don’t suggest, intentionally or unintentionally, that leadership happens only in the context of running a business. Running a business is management, and it should be guided by good leadership. Leadership happens in boardrooms, and it happens at dinner tables and on playgrounds and at checkout lines. A leadership discussion can be about profits, or it can be about dreams or bullies or heartbreak or 10 pm curfews or what we’re going to do next. Don’t teach leadership as an occupational skill in business school, teach it as a life skill in kindergarten. Talk about leadership in the full context of life and walls start falling down all over the place.

Leadership is bigger than our boxes and walls. Fascinating things happen when we take down the walls we have built around leadership and open it up to everyone. People grow. Their eyes are opened to see they have the permission and ability and responsibility to lead. Their hearts are opened to the unique purpose they have to serve.

Managers are set free to be the leaders they are truly meant to be. Youth are no longer fettered with the label of “future leaders” and they live as leaders today. Citizens take a stand for justice because it is influence, not authority, that leads real lasting change. Groups of people who by their race or gender or other physical characteristics have often found themselves on the outside come to see that they are leaders by their own choice.

Service, influence, relationship, trust, community, vision  – this is the stuff of leadership. This is the stuff of life.

Let’s stop making leadership so much smaller than it really is. Let’s exuberantly declare, “I want to be a leader!” Let each and every single one of us boldly claim, “I am a leader!” Let’s set leadership free to be life size.

LifeSizeLeadership

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Whoosh! Leadership lesson from a Hawk

Broad-winged_HawkWHOOSH! The message was to the point and fortunately without any sharp points.

Two hawks flew overhead as I was birding at a local nature center. One landed on a branch high above me and the other continued to call from somewhere. I wanted to confirm that this was indeed a Broad-Winged Hawk so I could add it to the list of birds I had seen that day. I used a bird app on my phone to play the sound of a Broad-Winged. Yes, this is what I was hearing.

I looked up with my binoculars at the perched hawk, hoping that he would take off so I could see his underside and tail. He did fly, but it wasn’t his belly I was looking at. My view was looking head-on at the bird, and he was getting bigger rapidly. For many rodents this view is the last thing they ever see. I lowered my binoculars and prepared for the imminent encounter. At the last second he banked slightly and passed within a couple feet of my head. Woosh.

I turned around to see where he went and discovered he was coming back at me. This time I didn’t see how close he came because I was crouched down in a ball with my arms over my head. It was unlikely that he would actually hit me, but I didn’t want to chance a minute navigational miscalculation.

The third delivery of the message came a few minutes later and I never saw it coming. WHOOSH!!! The sudden sound was directly behind my head as the hawk executed a precise sneak attack from the rear. It was clear I was not welcome. I left the park.

As I was driving to my next birding site it occurred to me that my experience with the hawk is similar to what can happen in an office environment. An insecure manager looks down from their perch and sees a subordinate studying leadership. The manager has the misguided idea that leadership is a job, THEIR job. And if someone from down in the rank and file is trying to be a leader that can only mean one thing – they’re after their job. WHOOSH! The attacks begin until the minion is curled up in their proper place, or just leaves.

I’ve been on the receiving end. I’ve heard the Whoosh in the office. As a recipient of the message you have options. You can counterattack which is totally futile, and is what I tried the first time it happened to me. You can hide. You can work with the manager to try to open communication and come to a better mutual understanding. But as you work to improve the environment, also be prepared for the option to leave because that may end up being your best choice.

And if you are a manager and see someone in your group working to become a better leader don’t feel threatened. If anything feel honored. Remember it is not your title that makes you a leader but rather it is your influence. Do all you can to influence this person to grow into the fullness of who they are meant to be.

Look around you. How many leaders can you find?

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders,
not more followers.”
Ralph Nader

An Archaic Definition of Leadership

LeadershipDefnArchaic2 “A position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.”  This is Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of the word leadership.  I envision that someday there will be an italicized word next to this definition – archaic.

First of all there is no need for using the word leadership in this way.  There is already a better word for this, it’s management.  When referring to a position within an organization, just call it management.  Management is about position, structure, authority, business.  Leadership is about people, relationship, influence, life.

Often leadership is used to distinguish upper management from lower management.  But again this isn’t necessary.  Call it upper management or executive management.  Please don’t call it senior management, though, that has its own issues.  Senior management conjures up images of silverbacks in the boardroom drinking their discount coffee.

Many times leadership is used as a euphemism for management, to glorify management.  This has the opposite effect, however, if you stop and think about it.  It suggests that management has such a negative connotation that it needs to be called something else in order to be respected.  But this is absolutely not the case.  The position of manager is a very distinguished role within an organization.  If there is a negative connotation it is an issue with the person in the position and not the position itself, and needs to be addressed as such.  Call management management and respect it for what it is.

Within the role of manager is a great opportunity to serve the people of the organization.  And within that service then is a great opportunity for leadership.  The leadership comes not from the position itself but from the service carried out within that role.  Service builds trust.  Trust builds leadership.  The key thing to remember is that this is true of any role within the organization, not just management.

Not only is it unnecessary to use the term leadership to describe management but it is also harmful.  It’s not just a matter of semantics.  To me this is a moral issue.  I firmly believe that there is no greater impediment to individual growth and personal fulfillment than all the confusion around leadership.  And it is just as much a detriment to those in management as those on the outside, if not more.  I’ve gone into detail on this in the past and I’m sure I will again in the future.

Here is an exercise to help think this through.  For one day, challenge yourself to pause for a second every time you are about to use the word leadership.  Consider what you are referring to and ask yourself – Is this really about leadership or am I in fact talking about management?  If it’s management then use the word management.  If indeed you are discussing leadership then by all means use the word leadership.  Just call it what it is.

It may seem pretentious of me to want to rewrite the dictionary.  The main point is that we have a great opportunity at hand.  Our concepts of organizations are being redefined and rethought.  The structured paradigm of the industrial age is crumbling.  Now is a very good time to pause and think about how we use the word leadership.

The Mythical Pyramid of Leadership

“Flatten the pyramid!”  While the call to reduce or even eliminate the pyramidal management structure is nothing new, I have noticed it gaining volume of late.  The new generation of employees demands a less bureaucratic reporting structure, states one recent article.  The current speed of business requires a leaner operation, says another.  Often referred to is the company Valve, which has no hierarchical management structure at all.

What strikes me, though, as I look at the details of the demands is that at the core of the issue this isn’t even a matter of management.  It’s about leadership.  A reduction of management is not what people are truly seeking, even though they say it is.  Rather their aim is an expansion of leadership.

Our concepts of leadership and management are too closely interwoven.  Career success is to get as high as possible on the managerial pyramid, and the person that’s ahead in the race is therefore the leader, right?  Really?

Leadership is not about rising above others, it’s about lifting others up. 
Leadership isn’t about getting ahead of others, it’s about moving others forward.

People want to make a difference.  They want the freedom to lead.  But when leadership is falsely woven into the managerial pyramid it denies the opportunity for all but a few.  Leadership needs to be recognized as distinct from management.  Yes, managers should be expected to be leaders.  But so should those not in management.

When leadership is seen for what it truly is something amazing happens.  The leadership pyramid goes away.  Leadership is not a position.  And if there is no position, there is no pyramid.

Each organization needs to determine the management structure best for them, and as long as leadership isn’t tangled into this they’re fine.  In an organization with a culture that allows everyone the opportunity to lead, regardless of title or position, the managerial pyramid is turned from a blockade of bureaucracy to a stepping stone towards greatness.