The Human Condition:

True Leadership – January 15, 2017


For a while when I worked in employee communications at the public utility, I edited—which really meant researching and writing—a newsletter for managers and supervisors. The basic theme of the publication, at least in my mind, was the art of leadership. I believed then and still believe now that leadership is one of the highest of human callings. Its basic function is to perform work through the good will and participation of other people to achieve goals that could not otherwise be attained.

This definition immediately rules out the person in a position of authority who views his or her subordinates as merely helpers, hangers-on, or dependents. Such a person usually believes he or she has all the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve the goals, just not the time or energy to do so. During critical phases of the effort or at crunch times, such a person swats aside the subordinates’ hands and initiative and takes on the task him- or herself. This is not leadership; this is solo mastery.

Teamwork is a major part of leadership. But in its common usage these days, the word “teamwork” focuses on the responsibilities and attitudes of the team members. Teamwork is considered to be a communal quality, arising from the actions of participants who subordinate their own interests, ideas, and energies for the good of the group. Teamwork is usually characterized as a kind of sacrifice, where highly competent people stop working for themselves so that others may prosper equally. Thus conceived, teamwork is supposed to be an antidote to competition among members of the group. For example, in a sales department, competition would have each sales rep trying to contact the most customers and ring up the most orders, so that he or she could win the most commissions. In this environment, stealing customers and failing to transfer calls would be a winning strategy. The commonest form of teamwork, on the other hand, would have the sales reps sharing their leads, passing off calls to each other, and going out of their way to satisfy each customer, even if someone else on the team got the credit and the commission.

Teamwork may or may not be a better approach to good effort compared to competition, depending on how the teams are structured, how incentives are distributed, and how the group’s values are stated and enforced. Still, the usual notions of teamwork are that it somehow arises on its own, out of the good will and creativity of the group members. But that structure and those incentives and values do not simply float around in the air, waiting to be applied. Someone must take a hand in creating, proposing, and enacting them. That person is usually the unidentified and unrecognized member of any team’s story, its de facto leader.

The leader may be someone in a position of authority over the team. Or it may be an individual on the team who senses the existing group dynamic; sees opportunities for improvement; voices a new structure, relationships, and values; and then advocates for them with the rest of the group. In this non-authoritarian position, the leader can do the necessary structuring and value creation, but he or she still cannot revise the incentive program—at least not in a business setting—without recourse to and buy-in from upper management.

The leader who is also in a position of authority might simply order the new structure and announce the new values—but he or she would be a fool to do so. Perhaps forty or fifty years ago, the industrial and commercial culture of this country favored top-down, command-and-control leadership. This was probably a hangover from the previous forty years in the 20th century, which endured two world wars separated by, first, a decade of wild economic success and, then, a decade of economic collapse, precipitating a more robust and authoritarian form of leadership.

This top-down leadership style could work in an organization which, like the U.S. military, had a mostly captive workforce.1 The expectation in business and industry through the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s was that an employee joined the company or the union for life, looked to the organization to provide not only work and pay but also health benefits, scheduled vacations, regular advancement, moving allowances, and a pension upon retirement. In return, the employee performed whatever job he or she was told to do, did not moonlight or freelance, relocated to another part of the country or overseas when asked to, and offered the organization his or her unfailing emotional support and allegiance.2

But along about the 1970s—and certainly in full swing by the ’80s—a new style of employee was created, mostly from the pages of bestsellers by strategy gurus and management consultants. The new employee was not supposed to simply take orders but to anticipate them, foresee opportunities and directions that would benefit the company, and pursue them with the blessings of management. The new word was “entrepreneurial,” and in that guise the average employee in the average position within the company was expected to exercise the eagerness and foresight of an Andrew Carnegie, a Hewlett or a Packard, a Wozniak or a Jobs. But, where the true entrepreneurs of industry were usually following a hunch or a dream, operating on a shoestring of finance, and working without guidance on a venture that would all too likely fail, the corporate entrepreneur was still working within a defined product or service area, on an annual budget, and with plentiful if not mandatory guidance on a venture that had better not fail.

This situation was, of course, unstable. So along about the ’90s—and growing through the aughts and teens3—a newer style of employment was created, characterized by the paradigm “Me, Inc.” This employee was usually not actually hired by the company but worked as a contractor or temporary staff supplied by an agency. This employee had no expectations of the company which actually needed the work to be done—not continuing employment, not advancement, benefits, or retirement. And those people who were still formally employed by the company were understood to be working “at will”—which meant they could be laid off or fired immediately and without cause. These formal hires also received from their employer a “defined contribution” to each employee’s personally managed retirement account, rather than the “defined benefit” of guaranteed retirement at a certain age with a certain residual income.

Leadership in the era of Me, Inc. is a different proposition from that in the top-down era. In this new work environment, the leader becomes less of an authority figure and more like the individual team member who sees opportunities, proposes solutions, and enlists the participation of others in trying them out and making them work. This kind of leader does not give orders except in unusual situations or from dire necessity.4 Instead, he or she points out necessities and opportunities in the organization’s current situation or the economic environment. And rather than propose solutions directly—as if he or she possessed all the answers—the leader invites others on the team to come up with the ideas. The delicate step, then, is for the leader to guide the discussion of options and force the group into realistic appraisals, so that appealing but harebrained notions don’t capture the group’s imagination and let people run away into foolish or reckless actions. The leader stays fixed on the hard and indisputable realities of the situation, rather than making appeals to authority—which always, in the end, come down to “because I said so.”5

Letting others devise and implement solutions is a form of delegation. The good leader delegates where appropriate—meaning once the subordinate has been prepared with the organization’s and the leader’s values (“What’s important around here”) and standards (“How we do things” and “What’s acceptable around here”). Setting values and standards are probably the biggest part of the leader’s job. A “natural” leader, if there is such a thing, has both a feeling for group sentiment and group dynamics as well as the capability to appeal to—and direct the group toward—a higher vision. That vision might be one involving morality, fairness, efficiency, personal honor, or some other good. The vision is almost always positive (“Things work better if we do it this way”) rather than negative (“You’ll get in trouble if you do it that way”).

With a positive vision, the leader aligns him- or herself with the belief that most reasonable people want to do the right thing, and most employees want to create a satisfactory product or service experience. Every job and every market sector or political function has its own canon, whether written or unwritten, of acceptable practices and work product. People who have chosen a career or a position on their own—rather than being dragooned into or enslaved by the organization—already have notions about what is the right and proper way to act and to do the job. The leader works within those canons and notions, rather than against them, and builds on or shapes them to fit the particular task at hand.

Leadership, like much else in this life, is an art form. It is a blending of personal force with perceptive deference to the ideas and opinions of others. It enlists the motives, creative potential, and dreams of the team members. And it works best when the leader is positive, relaxed, and confident—even when he or she might not actually feel that way. True leadership is the highest expression of personal strength and capability.

1. But at the highest levels of military command, the good leader is not always a top-down order giver with his or her immediate staff. Soldiers on the battle line are expected to follow orders implicitly and without question, but the headquarters personnel who originate those orders and the colonels and majors—or, at sea, the captains and commanders—who must execute them should always be given the freedom to offer suggestions and then to exercise initiative in acting upon them. A good general or admiral invites comment and criticism, within bounds, to elicit trust and participation.

2. Many employees also met their romantic interests, significant others, and future spouses in this environment. They would even, at the company’s prompting but without irony, consider themselves to be part of “the XYZ Corporation family.” Work represented a cultural as well as an economic proposition.

3. And the trend was further exacerbated by the employment conditions spelled out in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which put economic pressure on employers either to provide more comprehensive medical benefits or to limit the scale of their employment.

4. To quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune: “Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.”

5. No one liked hearing that line of reasoning when Mother or Father used it with them as a child. No adult really likes to hear it now.