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Why We Don’t Want to Lead – Part I

| | General Leadership

“Do something wonderful, people may immitate it.” — Albert Schweizer

I don’t think people give themselves enough credit for their leadership, both their capacity to lead as well as the leadership they do display in the course of everyday work and life. While delivering a Leadership Development workshop to a group of teachers I encountered a first hand example of one reason for this.

We started with an assessment tool – a simple questionaire. Yet almost all of them struggled to fill it out. When we talked about why it was so hard it became clear: they did not see themselves as leaders. Many did not even want to be seen as a leader.

The real irony here is that they call themselves and are known as “The Leadership Team” in their school. Many have been on this team for more than 3 years. When they started they were all excited about developing themselves as leaders. They have done some great things in their school and have demonstrated tremendous leadership. But now they were resisting the very notion that they were leaders. Seems crazy doesn’t it?

I think it points to the power of a myth. The particular myth they confront at their school is that if you want to lead you are only really interested in getting ahead. While leadership is mostly spoken about in a virtuous context, this example reminds us that leadership in organizations is not always perceived as a virtue.

In our conversation it became abundantly clear that their school culture frowns upon standing out and wanting to get ahead. If you say you want to be a leader people assume you want to be a principal some day. In that culture some frown on ambition that is not directed at teaching itself. Most of these teachers just want to be great teachers. They care about their craft and they really care about their kids. They joined this team to make a difference in their school. And they have. They do want to be appreciated for their contribution, just don’t call them leaders.

This is only one example of how an individual belief, especially when it becomes a cultural belief in an organization, can inhibit leadership. We each have many tightly held beliefs about leadership. Some of these beliefs foster leadership in ourselves and others. Yet consider that some of our beliefs, both individual and organizational, are actually myths that can inhibit leadership in ourselves and in others. Sometimes they inhibit us unconsciously. Other times they are the reasons we and others use for why we do not speak up, step up and stand up.

What are your beliefs about leadership? Are any of them getting in the way of your ability to lead effectively or even your willingness to speak up, step up or stand up for the things that matter to you? What about the people whose leadership you support? Do they have beliefs that could be getting in their way?

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Randy Hall   |   30 August 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

This is a fantastic post. It clearly illustrates how no matter what we think should happen in an organization, culture can cause a different reality to emerge.

Keep sharing,

Randy

Susan Mazza   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

Thanks Randy. I believe one of the core capabilities of effective leadership is the ability to read the context. Clear examples like this help to demonstrate the importance of this skill. If any examples from your leadership work in organizations come to mind please share them.

Walter   |   02 September 2009   |   Reply

Leadership is inherent in all of us. However, few can muster the courage to step up and speak his/her mind. Leadership doesn’t command force but rather igniting the belief and sympathy of your followers.

Beliefs can also hamper our leadership ability because it tampers our choice. It takes awareness to escape from its fetters. 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   03 September 2009   |  

Thanks for your comments Walter. There is no doubt that leadership takes courage. Yet what is terrifying for one person may be no big deal for another, for example, speaking up at a meeting of 20 people.

What I am interested in and committed to is supporting people in finding even the small, simple ways they personally can stretch themselves to step up or speak up. All too often people get paralyzed because they think to lead it has to be some cataclysmic event or action yet I believe real leadership happens in the everyday, sometimes seemingly insignificant, actions.

Steve Finikiotis   |   30 August 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

Very insightful post about an aspect of leadership that isn’t often covered. As you point out, our beliefs about leadership can be limiting.

For example, in my culture (Greek), leadership is often associated with hubris. In classical drama and myth, it was deemed a tragic flaw. Recognizing how beliefs like this operate in the background enable us to surmount barriers and fulfill our leadership potential.

Your post is a reminder to delve more deeply and look honestly at the beliefs which keep us from realizing our potential. Thank you, again, for another superb post!

Steve

Susan Mazza   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

What an excellent example Steve of a context for leadership that could clearly get in the way. Thanks for sharing it. And as you point out it is important to be honest about your real beliefs vs. the ones you think you are supposed to have if you are to stretch into your untapped potential.

Mike Henry   |   30 August 2009   |   Reply

Very perceptive as usual. To answer your question, for me leadership is service. I’m looking to serve in community. If that means letting you lead or supporting your leadership, that’s OK. However many times it means being an influencer for the good of the organization. Other times it means being willing to do the hard thing. For me the best part of leadership is working for the greater good of the others involved. Leadership is a community service.

Susan Mazza   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

Mike, clearly service is your context for leadership. Yet I think it is important to note that service is a relatively new context for leadership. I think we continue to come up against the old context of leadership = position. In places where power granted by position is perceived to have been abused a negative connotation for leadership is more likely.

Wally Bock   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

Wonderful post, Susan and you ask an important question. What I wonder about is whether we would be more effective in helping people at all levels contribute their insights and experience if we abandoned the “L” word in favor of something else. I worry that in our society we’ve turned “leadership” into something magic and powerful and that keeps us from discussing the real and important role of influence.

Wally Bock   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

I think Chuck may have it one of the problems of attaching the name of “leadership” to influence exercised without position. The reality is that if a person does not have a leadership position they are usually not accountable or responsible for what the group does. That’s clear difference between what happens if you’re responsible for group performance or you’re simply “leading without a position.”

Chuck Musciano   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

Good post, Susan.

My first reaction is regarding the students: imagine being taught by people who instinctively view leadership as a bad thing! The subliminal messages in those classrooms must be horrifying!

Regarding leadership: your perception is your reality. If you, or your culture, present leadership in a negative light, you will discourage leaders from emerging.

Personally, I find it hard to understand how leadership can be construed as a Bad Thing. In any group, some leader will emerge. It is almost impossible for a group to accomplish anything without some form of leadership. We often talk about “consensus-based leadership” and similar concepts, but in reality, consensus is obtained when someone steps up and leads the group to a consensus. Even then, the consensus is driven by “invisible leaders” who are savvy enough to drive the team as they see fit, without giving themselves away as the leaders.

Leadership involves accountability and responsibility. Neither of these are group attributes. Ultimately, accountability comes down to an individual that either did, or did not, do something. Similarly, responsibility ultimately falls to one person.

As you might suspect, I believe that leadership is a positive quality that should be encouraged and developed.

Susan Mazza   |   03 September 2009   |   Reply

All fabulous points Chuck.

In response to your comment that you don’t see how leadership can be construed as a bad thing: I think that happens mostly when the term leadership is used to refer to people or a person at some senior level in an organization and there is a negative assessment about how they are leading (or not!). The sentiment that follows can be “if I have to be like “them” to be considered a leader I want no part of it!” The same people who complain about “leadership”, however, often also say they wish there was some REAL leadership here.

Henie   |   31 August 2009   |   Reply

A true leader is someone who is deep in action, focused on the goal at hand, a *doer.*

The context imposed on leadership is the very thought of how, what, who…immediately skews and gives it the fear factor, as though a leader is one who sticks his neck out to be beheaded.

True leaders are too busy leading in action rather than configuratively in thought of what it ought to be.

Thanks always, Susan, for your insights! I do appreciate it!

Susan Mazza   |   03 September 2009   |   Reply

Thanks Henie. Love your comment that “true leaders are too busy leading in action rather than configuratively in thought.” Somehow I don’t think Ghandi pondered whether he was a leader or not.

Jann Freed   |   01 September 2009   |   Reply

One of the things I stress is that the most important person to lead is YOURSELF. That drives home the point that everyone needs to at least lead themselves. The more people apply concepts to themselves, then the more relevant the messages. We all have a sphere of influence that we can impact in a positive way.

But I know how many people tend to view power as a negative thing.

Your posts are thought provoking and I am trying to learn from your writing. Thanks. Jann

Susan Mazza   |   03 September 2009   |   Reply

Thank you Jann. I like this idea of “leading yourself”. You have me thinking about what leading yourself really looks like as in what are some of the specific acts of leadership that one takes when they are leading themselves that could give individuals who aren’t ready to lead a way to go to work on their leadership.

Joanne Maly   |   27 September 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

Your observation about the teachers in your seminar not wanting to be public leaders – and in fact – almost feeling a need to hide their strengths and innate abilities to be inspiring leaders – seems like an example mirrored in many areas in our culture.

I often wonder how many potential, positive leaders are intimidated by ‘standing out’ at an early age – and they – and we – therefore never know the power and exciting results that ‘could have been.’

I am honored, by the way, to have your Random Acts of Leadership blog listed on my own ‘Simply Said’ blog in the “Blogs I Like” list. I hope that many of my own readers become one of your regular post readers. You have a gift in presenting your message.

Thank you.

Susan Mazza   |   27 September 2009   |   Reply

My intention is to reach as many of those potential, positive leaders as possible!

Thank for the honor of being represented on your blog. I truly appreciate your vote of confidence!

Wally Bock   |   03 September 2009   |   Reply

If you don’t have the courage to speak up, you’re not doing leadership, you’re just thinking about it.