In a seminar on leadership, the moderator asked a very curious question of the audience: “Why do you want to be a leader?” It was a rhetorical question, and he didn’t spend much time on answering it. However, I sense that this is something that anyone who aspires to become a leader (or to practice leadership in any given situation) really ought to ask himself, because a lot of people end up being bad leaders because they fail to give this question due consideration.
Even the phrase “bad leaders” is a bit gentle: people who seek to be leaders for the wrong reasons, or those who have authority and use it for the wrong reasons, are not merely “bad” in the sense of being ineffective: they are “bad” in the sense of being unethical: manipulative, deceitful, and damaging. The question of “why” is therefore of critical importance.
Having meditated on this notion for a while, I’ve come up with five critical criteria of legitimate, effective, and ethical leadership that should be well-defined before attempting to exert influence or authority over others. There are a handful of others of which I am less confident, but these three seem of particular importance.
First: A Leader Must Have a Legitimate Purpose
Leadership is a technique or a tool that is used for a legitimate end. One does not employ a hammer merely to engage in the act of hammering – but because driving a nail is necessary to build something, which accomplishes a purpose. In order to lead effectively, a leader must have a vision of what he is attempting to accomplish and a clear sense that the actions he takes in guiding other people to follow his lead will achieve that outcome.
This would seem to be self-evident, but there are many people who seek positions of leadership simply because they want to be in command – it has to do with a craving for self-esteem and controlling other people, and sets aside the notion that anything is to be accomplished by exercising that control. People who are already in “leadership positions” are particularly prone to forget this, and attempt to bully or manipulate people simply because they have authority at their disposal and nothing in particular to do with it, and it gratifies them merely to exercise power and see others obey.
Such people do not gain the reputation of being good leaders, or even the reputation of being particularly good people – but are instead perceived as nuisances and impediments to progress who must be avoided or accommodated in deference to their formal authority, but not out of respect for their character.
Second: A Leader Must Need Followers
Leadership is not a solitary activity – by its very nature, leadership requires one person to lead, and one or more others to follow. Pursuant to that, the question arises: does the leader really need others to follow his direction in order to accomplish his objectives? Or said another way, is he merely seeking to manipulate others into do things he can do, and ought to do, for himself?
I expect there is a strong counter-argument to this: that a leader will often delegate tasks to others that he could do himself because he has better things to do with his time – which is a valid enough reason, when it is in fact a reason rather than an excuse. A good way to tell the difference is to consider what the leader is doing with his time after handing off tasks to a follower, and whether those tasks he is doing himself do, in fact, require skills that he has that his subordinate does not.
There is also the outdated argument of the esteem of a leader: that it diminishes the status of a leader to be seen doing mundane and unglamorous work. I would argue that is not a valid argument: there are many instances in which high-ranking officers (even to the CEO) have been seen doing mundane work, and it has not hurt their esteem but instead won a great deal of respect from their employees and the public. With that in mind, it is not so much esteem as it is ego that causes narcissistic types to delegate unpleasant tasks to others while they have nothing better to do.
Third: A Leader Must Consider the Welfare of His Followers
There is in the present day the notion of “servant leadership” and the principle that people are most motivated to act in their own interest, and least motivated to act when someone else gets all the benefits of their efforts. I don’t think it’s realistic to go to the extreme of insisting that a leader must always serve the welfare of his followers, but it is likely reasonable to suggest that a leader should at least consider the welfare of his followers.
Controlling and manipulative individuals fail to consider the welfare of their followers, and are in it only to gain benefits for themselves. This is very obvious in commercial settings, in which managers demand employees work overtime without any additional compensation so that the team can achieve performance goals that earn the manager (and no one else) esteem and financial rewards. But it is also evident in non-commercial relationships, in which a person attempts to maneuver other people into doing things that do no benefit to anyone but themselves.
Consider leadership in the nonprofit sector, in which a leader must coordinate the work of those who give their support voluntarily, without compensation, because they feel a personal stake in the outcome. Whether the work volunteers do will benefit themselves personally or confer a benefit on others whom they wish to serve, the volunteer believes that the fruit of his efforts will confer a benefit to someone who truly deserves it. And if a volunteer is misused or abused, he will walk.
Where there is formal or commercial leadership, individuals are often motivated by some other reward: namely a paycheck, or avoiding the harm that will befall them if they fail to comply with the demands of leaders. Often both. And it is in those situations that leaders most quickly forget the principles of motivation, and lead in ways that demotivate their followers – forgetting, often until it is too late, that even a paid employee will eventually walk off the job when he’s had enough of being mistreated.
Fourth: A Leader Must Include His Followers in Decisions
The old-school approach to leadership was in the nature of “one mind, many hands,” in which leaders made all decisions and delegated tasks to followers, often without explaining to them what the tasks were meant to accomplish or why they were being done. It was a very self-centered and exclusive approach to leadership that gave the person in command and inflated sense of self-importance.
In the present day, most leaders don’t do all the thinking, but instead engage workers who contribute not only their labor but also their expertise to the task. From a functional perspective, it’s critical to success because a single person (even a designated leader) is not an expert in everything, and cannot see everything even if he does have expertise. Where a task requires expertise that only the leader has, then it’s arguably an instance in which he should not be leading, but doing the task.
But more to the point, people resent being relegated to the role of drones who carry out orders without thought or question. Some people actually prefer to work in that manner, and there are instances in which the old school of leadership is still germane (mass manufacturing, for example, requires many people to perform routine tasks without thinking).
So perhaps this is only germane to those situations in which workers contribute their knowledge – but I would argue that even when workers merely lend a hand, they are more efficient and effective if they understand how the work they do contributes to the accomplishment of a goal – and if given an opportunity, some could contribute ideas that would lead to a more efficient process and/or a more effective outcome.
Fifth: A Leader Leads Only When Leadership is Necessary
The final criterion that came tomind was that a leader must lead only when it is necessary. This is likely implicit in some of the other criteria (1, 2, and 3 at least) but it pertains not only to whether leadership is necessary at all, but how much a leader should be involved in the activities of his followers.
The micromanager, an all too common instance of the obsessive-compulsive control freak, seeks to involve himself in many instances where leadership and control is not necessary – hovering over a person who knows what to do and how to do it and constantly henpecking them, often giving them bad advice and preventing them from being efficient and effective.
Good leaders know when to provide guidance, and when to keep their teeth together and watch from a respectful distance, trusting in their followers to know what to do or speak up if they do not. Bad leaders, or controllers, seek to feed their ego and need for esteem by constantly inflicting themselves on people who do not need their guidance.
The key point to this meditation is the need for leaders to ask themselves why they want to lead – and whether they need to lead in a given situation. I have the distinct sense that a vast majority of the problems with ineffective or bad leaders could be resolved if they paused for a moment to consider those things – and whether they are leading for the right reasons, or merely bossing others just to gratify their need to have status and control..