So far, the Leadership in Chaos Podcast has mostly focused on dealing with the “chaos” in the title. This week, Ian discusses leadership itself. So here’s the question. What is leadership?

Full Transcription below:

During the last financial crisis, economists became the rockstar of the piece. They were the ones that were sought out on the radio waves, for interviews on TV, in the newspapers and magazines. This time around, during the Covid era, the Epidemiologists are the rock stars. And one such is Jack Lambert, who wrote an opinion piece for the Irish Times recently under the heading of “The 10 things we need to do to combat the spread of the virus”. He’s a science man, a branch of medicine, with a vast experience as the Professor of Infectious Diseases at UCD. And he’s talked a lot of sense so far.

On his list of 10 things to combat the virus, it won’t surprise you to find that number four on the list is the adherents to the wearing of masks. What might be more interesting is, that amongst the 10 topics that he chooses, number one on the list above all else is defined as this; the need for strong and decisive leadership and accountability. Here’s somebody from the branch of science and medicine, who’s saying that the number one thing we need to be doing to prevent the spread is nothing to do with science and medicine. It’s leadership.

I’m mindful that during the whole of our series so far, most of the emphasis has been on dealing with the Chaos in the title. And actually the bit that we haven’t discussed at any point directly is leadership itself. So here’s the question. What is leadership? The problem with leadership is that everybody understands the word. So everybody uses it and it actually devalues it as a currency. Because if you stop five people in the street and you ask them, “do they understand leadership?”, they’d answer yes. If you ask them to describe what leadership is, you’ll get five very different answers. Put the word leadership into a Google search today and you’ll get over 3 trillion results. All it does is creates more confusion.

The thing that got me involved in the profession of vocation that I am involved in is a fascination with human behavior. And for as long as I can remember in life, I’ve been particularly fascinated by leadership itself. And leadership, in the public domain, is typically dealt with in three different ways.
The first way is through what I call the Hero or the Talismanic Leader. Society is a storytelling beast that loves the stories about great heroic leadership. There are biographies written about great leaders in all dimensions. All the way back to the Greeks and the Romans. Modern day Talismanic Leaders fit into the realm of the Mandelas, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Steve jobs, Jack Welch. These are all people, and it’s very interesting to read their life stories and their leadership or about their leadership. But it’s very, very limited in terms of helping us develop our own skills. Because after all, only Steve Jobs can be Steve Jobs.

The second category is the academic side of leadership where academia has picked apart the makeup of, or the DNA of, leadership. And it’s reproduced it with models and metaphors and measurements and instruments. And this is all very useful because it gives us some sort of direction or framework under which we can operate.

Personally, I’ve always gone for the third approach and preferred it, which is to ask the audience. So for nearly 30 years, every single time I’ve dealt with a group of leaders, or leadership group, I’ve asked two questions. The first question is; “Why should anyone be led by you?” It’s really interesting to ask this question, because it’s greeted by a stoney prolonged silence. And it’s interesting to look out at the leaders and managers, as they shift uncomfortably in their chairs, trying to seek out an answer and wondering, is there a right one?

And interestingly, I can remember, famously, one manager emboldened enough to blurt out “Because I’m the boss”. Well, you can do your maths on how that one ended. What I do remember is that, in the module that this group did dealing with horses and having to lead horses, this particular manager struggled particularly, because apparently the horse never got the memo.

The second question that I ask is I ask groups to think about; “In your life and career to date, who’s the best leader you’ve ever encountered?” All the way back to when you first started to encounter leadership in any dimension, this could be back to your school days. It might’ve been a teacher, a guardian, a coach starting off in your summer jobs, your apprenticeships, your early career, all the way through to the modern day. If you had to pick out somebody who stood out to you as the gold standard for leadership, who would that person be? And the followup question is this; “So now that you’ve identified who the person is, what were the characteristics that they had that made you choose them over anybody else? These characteristics, I get people to write down one at a time on post-its. And when we gathered the post-its the answers and the characteristics that people choose fit into one of three categories.

The first category is IQ. Somebody who’s really smart. Somebody who’s really bright. Somebody who’s got a really high “get-it” factor. They see round corners, they’ve got a deep understanding of things and a very, very broad and robust intellect.

The second category of characteristics is technical. And what I mean by that is; people who get really, really good at doing whatever it is that they do, that they become masters of their craft. This could be somebody who’s brilliant at sales. It could be somebody who’s great at coding. Somebody who knows how to run a project brilliantly. So it’s somebody who has mastered their craft to such a degree that they have an expertise. And it’s almost like an art form.

The third category for characteristics is what I call the emotional connection. And what I mean by that is this is people’s ability, leader’s ability, to connect with people in ways that makes them feel important or special. So the type of thing that appears on the post-its for this category are things like, they trusted me. They gave me responsibility. They had a genuine interest in my welfare. They were honest. I always knew where I stood with this person. They were tough, but they were fair. What’s interesting about it is that in more than 25 years of asking the question and harvesting characteristics and seeing which basket they fit into, 70% of everything that people identify with or attribute to great leadership fits into the “emotional connection” basket.

People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel. Leadership ultimately is about impact.

Nobody ever sets out to be a bad leader. In fact, nobody in their own heads is a bad person. President Trump was interviewed most recently by radio journalist and right-winger rush limbo. And it’s the first time that I’ve heard the president admit that he may indeed fall for the election. He admitted and said openly.

And I quote, maybe I lose because they’ll say I’m not a nice person. He paused and somewhat resignedly afterwards followed up by saying, I think I am a nice person. Even the president believes he’s a nice person, but that won’t matter in November because he’ll be judged by his impact. Like all of us.

Until next time, stay sane, stay safe. Stay connected.

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