Leading others well can be a great challenge. It requires courage, judgment, wisdom, emotional intelligence, integrity, and much more. Leadership excellence comes with experience, but it begins with intentionality and commitment.
Here are the most important (four) questions to help ground your leadership in a powerful foundation, whether you are a new leader learning the ropes or a seasoned leader looking to upgrade or renew.
1. Why are you leading? Is it for prestige? The title? Money? Power? Perquisites? Is it to prove something, or impress others? In truth, several of these may be drivers for you, but the key issue is whether you have found a deeper why. Being a leader does not require being a saint absent normal human influences and motivations, but leading well requires clarity of purpose and a motivation beyond the self. Great leadership has been described as motivating people to accomplish great things together. In our “triple crown leadership” model, we address the kind of leadership that can build an organization that is excellent, ethical, and enduring—with exceptional, positive, and sustainable impacts.
Have you matured and evolved such that you are able to rise beyond your ego and focus on the bigger picture? Followers will recognize selfish motives, especially if they become dominant, and such motives can make your leadership toxic if left unchecked. But followers will respond positively if they see a leader committed to a worthy higher purpose and aspirational vision.
2. Who are you serving? As Robert Greenleaf noted, the best leaders serve. With his “servant leadership” framework, he challenged traditional thinking about leadership as a top-down phenomenon. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
People sense that call to serve. They respect and admire it, and willingly follow. Greenleaf even developed a conceptual “test” we can use for determining whether someone is a servant leader: “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
At best, leaders serve their followers, and the organization serves all of its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors and partners, the community, and its owners. The days of any organization serving only shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, are numbered.
3. Are you upholding your values? Your values are the things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life. While many organizations have statements of their values, many people don’t take the time to discover their own values. There is great power in making your values explicit and sharing them with others—and in demonstrating them through your choices and behaviors. Values matter because they guide your behavior in congruence with your authentic self and deepest convictions. Many people run into trouble when they behave in ways that conflict with their values.
Great leaders know their own values and collaboratively elicit a set of shared values to guide the behavior and decisions of people in the organization. They key is not having values. The key is upholding them and infusing them in the organization so they are actualized.
“You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.” -Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO, PepsiCo
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others? Learning to lead well is a lifelong endeavor, and the best leaders are incredibly intentional about developing their own leadership through experience, stretch assignments, challenges, crises, active solicitation of feedback, coaching, mentoring, training, courses, reading, peer groups, self-reflection, and more.
The best leaders also focus on developing others. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders develop in others the competence, as well as the confidence, to act and to excel.” They go on to say, “The most lasting test of your leadership effectiveness is the extent to which you bring forth and develop the leadership abilities in others, not just in yourself.”
Unfortunately, most organizations do not invest nearly enough in effective training and development (or on vetting people during hiring). According to a Hewitt Associates study of 700 senior leaders, most organizations hold their executives and managers accountable for achieving business results, but only 10% hold executives accountable for developing their direct reports, and only 5% indicate that their managers consistently demonstrate the ability to develop employees. In their book, The Talent Masters, Ram Charan and Bill Conaty write, “If businesses managed their money as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt. The great majority of companies that control their finances don’t have any comparable processes for developing leaders or even pinpointing which ones to develop.”
Organizations that are great at learning and development improve systematically over time in ways that allow them to excel and outperform others, leveraging the power of compounding and the engagement and motivation that come from learning, development, and growth.
So, four key questions for leaders:
1. Why are you leading?
2. Who are you serving?
3. Are you upholding your values?
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others?
How do you answer these questions, and which questions need better answers?
Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek
With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.
Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.
David Gergen, senior advisor to four U.S. presidents (from both parties), and author of Eyewitness to Power, wrote, “Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”
No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.
Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.
There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.
Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.
Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.
Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is
Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:
“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest.... people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”
Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.
In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:
Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.
Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.
Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.
Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”
Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.
Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:
For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.
Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.
Our brains (and evolutionary biology) may also be part of the story. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”
Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).
As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).
In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. We want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels. We need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.
Gregg Vanourek (@GVanourek) is an executive and award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life and work design. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a clarion call for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). He specializes in the links between personal and professional excellence and has served as an executive in market-leading organizations.
In our culture today, it is easy to assume that the proper frame for going about our working life is to pursue “climbing mode” as early and aggressively as possible. When I say “climbing mode,” I mean striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this notion is so ensconced in our culture that it is invisible, unconscious, and wholly taken for granted.
But is it right? Is it helpful or harmful when it comes to living a good life and crafting good work? The assumption of course is that it is right and helpful, that by focusing on “climbing mode” one will build a financial foundation that will lead to success, freedom, and happiness.
No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode. When we focus on climbing this “ladder,” there are many benefits that can accrue: making more money (which can reduce financial stress, then lead to financial independence and freedom, and perhaps even wealth creation, which can lead to enjoyment, generosity, and more); obtaining status; obtaining new opportunities; learning many things along the way as we encounter obstacles and solve problems; growing and developing as professionals, and perhaps as people; feeling a sense of satisfaction for overcoming challenges and achieving goals; and much more.
Yes, I am a fan of climbing mode in part for all the benefits it can bring but also for the remarkable “flow” states one can achieve while applying oneself toward a difficult task.
But for all the benefits of “climbing mode,” there are also down-sides, and the problem is that they can be not only severe but also overlooked, a double danger that can compound over time. I see a few major drawbacks.
First, burnout. This has been called an epidemic in modern times among working professionals in many cultures. Many of us have experienced it, and in my work with emerging leaders and entrepreneurs and young changemakers, I see it over and over again even among young people.
Second, excess self-reliance. If we are busy climbing our ladder, it is safe to assume that most of our peers are also buy climbing their own ladders. Fair enough, but this can pull us away from the meaningful connections that are an essential part of a good life (and enjoyable work).
Third, self-aggrandizement. The whole point of climbing mode, for many, is simple: to get to the top. So that I can be on top. So that I can get what I want. So that I can have wealth, or status, or things. It’s all about me and what I can get. In other words, it can become an ego trip of epic proportions. And, oddly enough, this focus on me and what I want to get so that I can be happy, can make me, well, miserable. There are many reasons for that, including our need for meaningful relationships, the psychological phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” (our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.), and our longing for purpose and contribution in life.
We have a family friend who spent decades of her life in “climbing mode” (to great effect, by the way, with a nice family, a nice home in the mountains, and a stellar career with an impressive resume), only to feel, after all that time, “I lost a lot of time and wasted a lot of energy by running after achievements to validate myself. It was all about how many things I could have on my resume… trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. It was like living on junk food.”
And then the kicker: “It took me sixty years to trust myself.”
Yes, one of the costs of climbing mode is that we can lose ourselves in the process, no longer trusting our inner voice about who we are and what we long for, and instead adopting someone else’s view of the good life.
“Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made…. Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
One of the problems here is that the pressures we feel when we are young can steer us in a direction that does not serve us well when we get older—and that it feels harder and harder to make changes in the meantime due to the systems that we work in and the “switching costs” that keep us in place.
The solution, though, is not to abandon climbing mode altogether. Again, great value can be found there.
The solution, I think, is to embrace something else: “discover mode,” which is learning about who we are and what we can do (e.g., values, strengths, passions, aspirations). It turns out the sages of old were right: one of the most important things we can do is to know ourselves. This ancient wisdom from East and West is something that feels like it is becoming lost in the modern world.
But let’s be clear: discover mode is not a replacement for climbing mode.
No, instead I think it is something that should come first. We should begin by doing the inner work of discovery, giving us direction for our climb.
And then we can throw ourselves into climbing mode.
But it does not end there. Seasons of life will come and go, and we will change, as will the people around us and our circumstances. So we will need to go back into discover mode again, and then climbing mode again. And so on. It becomes an iterative process of action and reflection, of “warrior and sage.”
Yes, there is a time and a place for climbing mode, but which ladder will you climb, and how will you decide? If you begin instead with discover mode, and then remember to flex between these modes, I think it will serve you well.
Gregg Vanourek (@GVanourek) is an award-winning author and changemaker who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life design. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture, and is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs and Triple Crown Leadership. For more on this topic, see his TEDx talk.
Gregg Vanourek is a high-impact leadership developer and award-winning author who trains, speaks, coaches, and consults on leadership and personal development.