Are You a Leader?

Are you a Leader?

Leaders have followers

Walk into any bookstore and stroll over to the business/management section.  There you will see an absolute flood of titles on leadership.   For about $21.95 you can pick up a book of secrets – literally revealing leaders’ habits, their in-boxes, their priorities, what they sweat and don’t sweat.  As a genre, leadership study is booming and there is apparently no end in sight.

As an officer in the United States Air Force, I’ve been in the leadership business for almost 18 years.  Furthermore, our organization values leadership (or at least claims to) as much as any organization on earth.  What I’ve come to realize during my career is that even the military, so dependent and so reverent toward leaders and leadership, has a dark secret:  there are precious few actual leaders working in today’s military.  I suspect the same is true for the private sector.

As you mull over that shocking claim, perhaps this is a good time to go back to the beginning.  Lost in all the books, seminar discussions, college courses, and management training sessions on leadership is one crucial question.  It is the question that is rarely considered, but I am going to ask it.

Are you a leader?

If you are an office manager, coach, CEO, military officer, school department head, etc. – I’m sure you have already reflexively answered with a resounding yes.  However, I’m about to tell you that there is a very good chance that your answer is not correct.  The fact is, the vast majority of people who think they are leaders are not actually leaders.  They labor under this false belief because they do not correctly define “leader.”

Three Critical Errors in Defining “Leader”

1. The Positional Error

People will often point to their position as ipso facto proof that they are a leader.  “I am a General, for Heaven’s sake.  I have thousands of troops who work for me!  How could I not be a leader?”  The same is true in business, a CEO of a multi-million dollar company not a leader?  Impossible!  The Dean of a college with all those administrators and professors answering to her, are you telling me that she isn’t a leader? 

Yes, that is exactly what I am telling you, none of these people are leaders by virtue of their position.  A position is not a leader.  A position within a hierarchy is simply the structure created to allow for leadership to happen.  However, you are kidding yourself if you think your title is leading anyone.  It isn’t leading a single person. 

2. The Legal Error

Another mistake people make when defining leaders is the legal error.  The legal error occurs when people mistake legal responsibilities of subordinates with loyalty.  For example, in the military a Captain is legally bound to do what the Colonel tells him to do.  If the Captain fails to follow orders, he faces discipline.    Likewise, the CEO or Sales Manager who has the power to hire and fire can also leverage a legal relationship to compel subordinates to follow orders.  A mid-level manager who fears she will lose her job if she opposes the CEO is legally compelled to follow her CEO/leader.  

If you are relying on legalism to “lead” your subordinates, I have news for you.  You are not a leader.  You are simply a legally enshrined bully.  Don’t get me wrong, there may come a time when anyone must be legitimately directive with a subordinate.  However, if you are on a day-to-day basis defining your leadership by saying “get on board” or “because I said so” and if you are spring-loaded to wag your finger at a subordinate and tell them to “stop pushing back.” If you regularly threaten their job – you are simply not a leader; and you are not leading.  Your subordinates despise you and your organization is more than likely a complete mess.

3. The Patronage Error:   

Another leadership fallacy that people cling to involves patronage.  The fact of the matter is that some people fancy themselves leaders because they have surrounded themselves with sycophants and toadies.  Time and again, I have seen leaders who have a small cadre of butt-smoochers following them all over creation.  Of course, the senior person will point to this cadre as proof positive that they are leaders.  After all they have a handful of people who will do anything to make them happy. 

There is a sad truth surrounding these leaders.  Namely, the sole motivation from the sycophants is personal advancement.  As long as the “leader” can provide promotions, bonuses, and prestige – these subordinates will do whatever the leader asks of them. 

However, like the other errors, this is not indicative of real leadership.  This is really a system of bribery and deceit that ultimately creates so much internal rivalry in an organization that morale is destroyed.  Only the senior person and a small handful of close servants are happy.  The senior because he has a handful of toadies; and the toadies themselves are happy because their boss can provide largesse and “good deals” based on brown-nosing rather than talent (or lack of talent).  This is a system that disintegrates in the face of adversity, because there are no real relationships.

So, what is a leader?

Over my military career, I’ve heard myriad definitions for leader.  Things like “a leader gets people to do what they would normally not do on their own.”  There are plenty of definitions out there – look them up yourself.  However, over the last few years, I have come to realize that the definition for leader is much simpler.  Until we understand this most basic definition of leader, we will never truly improve our leadership and our leaders.

The definition of “Leader” is as follows:  A LEADER HAS FOLLOWERS.

Pretty deep, huh?  Stick with me for a little bit here. 

A genuine follower is not motivated by fear or awe.  A genuine follower is not thinking “well if I don’t do what the boss says I’ll be fired or I will be disciplined.”   A genuine follower is not selfishly motivated by the prospect of “good deals” in a patronage relationship with his boss.

A genuine follower is someone who trusts his boss.  This follower has bought into the leader’s vision for the organization.  He wants to be part of the leader’s team because the leader has developed a relationship with the subordinates based on mutual respect, high standards, consistent values, merit, and most of all fairness. 

So, I ask again, are you a leader?

Before you answer this time, stop and ask yourself – do I have any genuine followers? 

There’s an easy test you can do tomorrow morning.  General, walk into your staff meeting and announce that you have a lousy opportunity that involves risk, danger, and very little career advancement for your staff officers.  Then ask for volunteers to leave with you in the morning.  If you get no volunteers, I have bad news for you – despite your high rank, you have no followers.  You are not a leader.

CEO, tomorrow when you get you managers together – tell them you need some of them to go with you to a new start-up company that offers poor benefits, a lousy location, hard work, and only the promise of potential glory down the road.  If no one signs up by the end of the day, bad news – you are not a leader.

The bottom line is this – leadership is about relationships between people; flesh and blood people with real needs, aspirations, ideas and fears.  A leader recognizes this and spends the vast majority of his time developing relationships with his people.  Why?  Because a leader needs followers – and that comes only through a real relationship.  The leader and follower exist for each other; they are committed to the success of both people.

I’ve often thought what would happen if I took my own challenge?  If I addressed my entire squadron tomorrow, simply saying, “listen folks – I have received a very dangerous mission to a location I cannot reveal to you.  This is an important mission but I can’t guarantee it will be fun.  All I can guarantee is that I need you to come with me.  So, I am looking for volunteers.”  I’d like to think that I’d get some volunteers, because I have worked hard to develop relationships with my subordinates, to turn subordinates into followers, and to then lead those followers with sincere mutual respect.  I’m pretty confident I have followers and that I’d have volunteers.

What about you?  Honestly, do you have any followers?  Don’t tell me about your rank, your title, your position – none of that really matters.  Don’t tell me how you command fear and awe because of the legalism that you cling to.

A leader has followers – how about you, what do you have?

– CJ Cheetham

Copyright © 2012 cjcheetham

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4 thoughts on “Are You a Leader?

  1. Very well said. Based on all the discussions you and I have had on this subject I believe you should right a book on this topic. There is so much to comment on. My take-a-way from what you wrote:
    1. True leaders have followers.
    2. True followers are all volunteers.
    3. Followers volunteer themselves to the task before them because the leader built a personal bond with them based on honesty, example, inspiration and justice.
    4. True leaders and true followers are rare in all organizations.

    Great stuff! Thanks for the rare leadership you have provided through the years.
    I look forward to your thoughts on other subjects!

    Like

  2. Well done. Left out
    Lead by example
    Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do
    Help followers set high standards and help them achieve them

    Love this forum. Always knew you were brilliant but had no idea you were eloquent.

    Like

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