The Truth About Leadership

Managing or leading?

I had a couple of conversations over the past week both of which brought up the issue of leadership, but from two different perspectives. One conversation related to someone who was attempting to ‘manage’ the response of certain people in their organisation by not disclosing the full details of the deliberations behind a tough decision. The logic quoted was that ‘the less information provided, the less ammunition that any dissenters might be able to use to criticise the management’.

The second conversation related to someone who is working in a cutting edge environment in which difficult decisions are regularly made that result in both good and not so good outcomes. The challenge for this individual was certain critical reactions despite the full extent of the possible results being known by all parties in advance.

Leadership territory

My response in both cases was somewhat similar and emphasised the fundamental point that when you step forward as a leader (senior executive, business owner, consultant, team manager, committee member, or supervisor), criticism and dissent is part of the territory. 

Accepting this truth removes much of the stress around the responsibilities of assuming such a role. In addition, understanding the truth prepares you so that when a dissenting situation arises, you see it as normal and not something to be avoided – in the same way that one accepts that to stand in the rain, one is going to get wet!

Managing = controlling

However, as in both cases above, real problems only arise when, rather than embracing the fact that one cannot please everybody, we attempt to manage or manipulate a difficult situation. By that I mean withholding information, applying ‘spin’ to a message or misrepresenting the facts, all in the name of trying to control the response of a few in order to avoid our own discomfort with receiving criticism.

One can see evidence of such behavior all around us, in particular in political life and large corporations, who in an attempt to stave off their own discomfort, present twisted versions of the truth which inevitably backfire and ironically inflict even greater pain than they were initially trying to avoid.

Leading = doing the right thing

Therefore, I suggested that a leader must always opt for the truth over the avoidance of criticism. Clear communication of the difficulty around the making of a particularly tough decision along with the rationale and context are also essential. Even so, I guaranteed the people involved that this approach would not be universally popular, but I reminded them that it is not the job of a leader to be popular. It is the job of the leader to lead and make the best decisions possible at the time, with integrity as the guiding beacon in the process. The best that they could hope for by following such an approach is respect!

So I left them with the question, ‘What kind of leader would you like to be: popular or respected?’

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash