Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Most Pressing Leadership Issue of Today

In his book “Lincoln on Leadership…Executive Strategies for Tough Times”, Donald Phillips shares examples of Lincoln’s leadership style during the Civil War. In explaining why he relieved Gen. John C. Fremont of his command in Missouri, Abraham Lincoln said "His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with".

It seems that we have not learned that lesson well enough because, almost 150 years later, leaders continue to struggle with how to deal with their people on a personal level. Specifically, leaders fear getting too close to their teams and so, they often distance themselves too much.

There are plenty of reasons for keeping your distance if you are a leader. The military has always had a policy against fraternization. Simply put, leaders were forbidden from socializing with their subordinates. It applies to all leader-subordinate relationships. Many companies in Corporate America have instituted similar rules feeling that maintaining a strictly business relationship amongst team members and leaders promotes the most efficient and trouble-free environment.

Another reason that leaders may create a rigid boundary between themselves and their team members is to prevent a perceived vulnerability. As people open themselves up to each other more, flaws may become evident. Some leaders may feel that they cannot afford to have their flaws exposed. They may feel that it undermines their authority or credibility. This idea, itself, is flawed because the reality is that leadership is not derived from authority. A person in authority MAY be a leader…but it is not always so. On the other hand, someone with no authority at all may still be a leader.

The risk to creating this distance is that no relationships are built. According to Roger Looyenga, then Chairman and CEO of Auto Owners Insurance, you cannot coach or mentor someone without entering into some sort of relationship with them. One of the current “buzz words” in the industry today is “engagement”. You simply cannot inspire true engagement of your team if you do not have a foundation of a positive relationship with them. It is actually essential to have some element of a personal nature in the relationship. The more levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that you can connect with, the more likely you will be successful. How will you know what it will take to touch someone in that way if you never really get to know them? Auto Owners has apparently done this well because earlier this year, they were recognized with the Dale Carnegie Leadership Award.

And speaking of Dale Carnegie, it’s not enough to just start asking personal questions. The attitude of sincerity and genuineness must go hand in hand with such efforts. In his ground-breaking book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Carnegie advises to “become genuinely interested in other people”. Obviously, the key word is genuine. Insincere gestures made in an attempt to build rapport will more often than not create a greater void in the relationship than existed previously.

These relationships that a leader must build are truly the most pressing issue in leadership today. Leaders are constantly being asked to do more, better, faster, and with fewer resources—today more than ever. Today’s business environment requires creativity, sacrifice, foresight, and determination. Those traits will likely be thriving in an organization whose leadership has built relationships based on genuine interest in its people.

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