It’s Not About You

Lessons from Poor Leadership

Ego prevents us from living that John Maxwell quote. But, what about learning from leaders with an enlarged ego? Is our leader development hopeless without good leadership? Case studies focusing on ‘what right looks like’ hold a monopoly on leader development and create a void. This vacuum is most felt by young leaders lacking role models for “what right looks like”. We are tricked into thinking we only learn from good leadership. Learning from, and working for, good leaders is enjoyable, energizing, and sustaining. But, those who are not as blessed with great leadership early in their career are not flapping in the wind. They too have an example from which they can learn.

This post was originally featured on The Field Grade Leader.

The visceral imprint of witnessing and experiencing bad leadership leaves lasting and valuable lessons of what NOT to do. Disclaimer: most leaders are not “good” or “bad”, but rather a compilation of traits open to objective and subjective analysis. We are human and all make mistakes. We should emulate the good leaders and intentionally avoid repeating the mistakes or gaffes of others.

What can we learn from experiences inside a leadership deficit?

Poor leadership lacks a fundamental truth — it is not about you. Leadership is not about ego, inflated self-worth, or personal advancement. It is — at its base — about serving, developing, and caring for your organization and its people. Being a leader is about the humble and tireless pursuit of excellence through the mobilization, care, and motivation of human capital.

Leadership is — with the tiniest singular exception — comprised entirely of others. Leaders who focus on themselves are easily offended, transactional rather than transformational, and self-focused. They ask, “how does this affect me?”

But, doesn’t leadership, especially formal leadership within an organization, require a level of respect? Absolutely! However, the lesson here is two-fold.

Dual Respect.

You’ve heard, respect is a two way street? Well, that is only half the story. Respect is, for leaders,  also dual-natured. You fall in on a level of respect deserved by your position or rank, but that won’t take you very far. You have to earn respect for who YOU are as a person. It is not something you can effectively demand. Genuine and deep respect is not something that comes with the title. False pretense and empty promises don’t win respect. Respect flows — most effectively — from authenticity, a dash of vulnerability, and congruent actions.

Confidence Flows from a Sense of Humor.

Don’t take yourself so seriously, but take the position you hold with the utmost seriousness. A former Battalion Commanders told me once, “What I, <insert name>, say may not mean much. But, to these Soldiers, what the Battalion Commander says means a lot”. In an organization where the executive leader — whether it be CEO or Commander — holds the authority to drastically change the lives of followers, they must treat their office with a measure of respect. Most importantly, the leader him/herself must act in a manner that deserves that level of respect. The leader has to respect the office he or she holds with humility and a servant’s heart.

“Is the Boss Happy?”

How many times have you heard someone in your organization ask, “is the boss happy?”.  We utter this phrase with timidity and passivity. It is a question born of organizations that revolve around the emotions of the leader — usually the negative emotions. Organizations serve as a mirror of their leaders; this is to say an organization’s character and culture usually reflect those of its leadership. When the leader is either selfish or emotionally unaware, both of which are inexcusable in leadership, their inconsistency breeds uneasiness amongst followers. Even worse, it can lead to imitation of that behavior among the team.

This question focuses on the emotional state of the leader instead of the purpose, vision, and mission of the organization. It is an unfortunate waste of organizational energy. Teams focued on their leader’s emotions and ego, fail to demonstrate proper organizational priorities.

Can good leaders be emotional and passionate? Of course! If you lack passion and emotion, why bother leading? But, there is a difference between emotional and emotionally intelligent. Emotionally unintelligent leaders can teach us two important lessons.

Use Emotion, Don’t Let Emotion Use You!

Leaders manage their emotions. They face hardships and will have bad days too, but they insulate their organization from the effects. We charge leaders to place the service of the organization above themselves. Understanding your emotions, their effect on your actions, and their effect on the organization, are absolutely critical to leading effectively. The emotional, physical, or mental hardships you face personally CANNOT affect those you lead. Identify your close personal counsel — your confidants — and use them to both unload to as well as keep you accountable. Asking ‘is the boss happy?’ is a waste of time and organizational energy. Instead, organizations should ask ‘are we in relentless pursuit of our purpose and vision?’

Passion is a double-edged sword.

The word passion comes from a Greek verb meaning “to suffer”. Passion is often your greatest strength and greatest weakness. Passionate leadership can drive action and motivate followers — as the saying goes ‘followers don’t care what you know until they know you care.’ But, passion can also manifest in anger and outburst. The answer is not getting rid of your emotions, it is to control them. Know your leadership attributes and treat them like a volume knob; know when to dial it up or turn it down to meet the situation.

Leadership is not about you. Don’t do it for yourself and don’t take yourself so seriously. Earn respect for you as a person, but expect respect for the office you hold — and act in a way that deserves respect. Don’t make your followers wonder, ask, or even care if you are “happy,” because it’s NOT about you. Focus your team on the vision and the mission. Your team is there to meet your intent, not make you happy.

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