The following post has been written and inspired in response to the call from LinkedIn Pulse for submission on #HowILead and contains excerpts from my upcoming book project “LeaderSheep; Leading from a posture of submission in Business, Life and The Kingdom of Heaven.”
“You’re a great worker and a fantastic salesperson but you’re not a very good leader.”
That was how my boss started my performance review back in the fall of 2003.
I was 31 years old. I had started at the company 4 years earlier as a local territory salesperson and risen to the rank of national sales manager. My first big project in my new role had been to oversee advertising sales for a nationally published industry directory. There were two other people on the project with me. After a cursory training in our target demographic and a quick talk about phone etiquette I divided the lead list among the three of us and turned my team loose on the phones.
The campaign lasted two weeks. In that time I sold four times as much as my two other team members combined. When either of them had questions or ran into difficulty I repeated the “training” from the first day and walked back to my desk. Halfway through the campaign one of them simply stopped showing up for work and the other quit shortly after we wrapped it up and paid out the commissions.
In hindsight I realize now that my boss was being kind. While the campaign itself was a success, we sold every square inch of advertising space available and at one point had to convince the publisher to add a few more pages just to satisfy the demand we had created, as a leader I had utterly failed.
Leadership means something different for everyone depending on where you draw your worldview from. While my boss was looking for a strong leader to step up and direct the project, inspiring, teaching and driving to the goal. I was far more interested in my own success and felt that “leading by example” would naturally inspire those around me to follow my work ethic and find their own motivation.
Was I wrong to think that way? Not exactly, but I was wrong to think that everyone else would agree with me and my “one-size-fits-all, just do as I do” approach backfired. My personal success on the project, while the rest of my team struggled, actually served to alienate the team rather than inspire them. My lead by example style ended up coming across as aloof and arrogant.
When my boss told me that I was a terrible leader I was crushed. I had never considered that my example was anything but inspiring. My reaction to the worker who stopped showing up was to write him off as lazy and the one who quit just didn’t share our future vision for the company. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me, could it?
When I realized that in reality it had everything to do with me I repented of my arrogance and set out to learn as much as I could about leadership and business. What I found, quite frankly, disturbed me.
Most of the conventional wisdom on leadership espoused a macho version of personal branding and self-help. Too often leadership it seems is seen in terms of a sports or military metaphor. Indeed some of the best selling business and leadership books of all time have been written by former athletes, coaches and military commanders.
The men who write these books, and they are almost always men, tend to have very little practical business experience. While running a sports team may technically be a business, and there may be some transferable skills learned in a military uniform I can’t help but wonder how any of these celebrities and commanders would fare in the “real world” of business. Or if they would have ever gotten a book deal in the first place if they hadn’t hit .300 for the New York Yankees umpteen years ago?
It’s as if the business press has nothing better to say than macho men know how to get things done and the rest of us just better learn to do it their way or be left behind. “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” as Thomas Paine once said.
Paine is arguably the most influential leader in American history. It was his 1776 pamphlet entitled; “Common Sense” that crystallized the patriot movement and helped to start the revolutionary war. Thomas Paine was a writer, philosopher and a political activist and it is his leadership maxim that has shaped our thinking on the subject for nearly 300 years.
Paine places people into three distinct camps, according to him people are either leaders, followers or a nuisance that must be pushed aside in the name of progress. It sets up a caste system and tends to promote the type of macho arrogance that comes out in almost all of the leadership writings I have seen and of which I was personally accused over a decade ago.
However, Thomas Paine neglected to consider that there are people who can both follow and lead at the same time and sometimes getting in the way of a wrong-headed idea is the only way one can show leadership and affect real change.
As I researched the ideas surrounding contemporary leadership I also went back to my Evangelical Christian roots. As my previous writing on the topics of economics and ethics has shown before I draw any conclusions I always test my thoughts against what the Bible, and most specifically what Jesus has to say.
Jesus, never said anything remotely like; lead, follow or get out of the way. The over arching message of Jesus on the topic of leadership was to serve.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. [John 13:13-15]
In recent years the term servant leadership has become a buzz word in and of itself. But the over arching message I find there is still the same. A good leader is still in control, he or she may be trying to serve those whom they are leading but they are still overwhelmingly considered to be the ones in charge. In a weird way just because we slap the label “Servant Leadership” on something, we haven’t really changed the message. The servant leader is still afforded a certain amount of macho swagger.
Vary rarely do we see an example of true servant leadership in business today. Especially outside of the church or faith based ministry. Why that is should be fairly obvious. True servant leadership is a contradiction in terms. A servant leader must lead from a posture of submission; submission to another person, to a greater good or to the direction of a collective ideal. For many the whole notion of submission is contradictory to the idea of leadership.
A herd of sheep is a great metaphor for the type of servant leadership I am trying to describe here and why I have coined the term LeaderSheep.
Sheep tend to wander. If left to on their own without a shepherd sheep will put their heads down and simply graze through a field with absolutely no sense of direction. Many people see this as a weakness that must be tamed and brought under the control and direction of a strong outside force like a human shepherd or a dog trained by to keep them inside a restricted area. Shepherds have convinced themselves that they do this for the sheep’s own safety and wellbeing but really they are doing it for no other reason than to protect their asset. If the sheep were allowed to wander they would get lost and fall into the hands of predators, or so we have been trained to think.
But take a closer look at the wandering sheep and you will begin to notice something. They aren’t wandering aimlessly at all. A herd of sheep functions as a unit, they maintain a collective desire to stay together for protection and to find the best grass to graze on. From time to time one might find a particularly juice patch of grass and lead the herd in that direction. Once the objective is accomplished that particular sheep will disappear back into the ranks allowing another sheep to step into leadership when the opportunity presents itself. This cycle of leadership and submission repeats itself continually as the herd moves about the pasture.
Knowing when to step up and use your gifts to accomplish a goal and then just as importantly knowing when to step down are two of the hallmarks of a good LeaderSheep. If Thomas Paine had understood the difference he might have said something more along the lines of “Lead, follow AND get out of the way.”
Here are what I believe are the marks of a LeaderSheep. First off LeaderSheep have a strong sense of purpose, they work well as part of a team and they are not put off by the size of the task or any apparent inexperience or under-qualification. They understand what must be done and they do it.
Second, LeaderSheep are driven by and conscious of results, they are above reproach and they are respected by their peers. There is no point in leading if you don’t know where you are going or what progress you have made toward your goal. Integrity is key and maintaining the respect of those around you is paramount to holding on to a position of leadership.
Lastly, LeaderSheep understand the limitations of their role. They are not afraid to stop doing things that just aren’t working or even let go of the leadership role when it’s just not their turn. Submission to the will of something greater, be it God or the group is the final act of a great LeaderSheep.
As I said at the outset, I’ve lived a lot of life and learned a lot since my first failure in leadership. In a way this is written as a warning to my 31 year old self. Since I can’t go back and change the past, I can at least make my thoughts, learning and perspective on leadership known. I hope I can teach you as much as I have learned in the process so that no one else has to work for an inept leader like I once was or endure an awkward performance review like mine all those years ago.
For more information on #HowILead and the upcoming book “LeaderSheep; Leading From a Posture of Submisson in Life, Business and The Kingdom of Heaven” or any of my other writing on the subject of Leadership and Behavioural Economics write to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.themeekonomicsproject.com