Why be a leader?


Why (Photo credit: banoootah_qtr)

Close to a battlefield over 200 years ago, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small group of exhausted battle-weary soldiers digging an obviously important defensive position. The section leader, making no effort to help, was shouting orders, threatening punishment if the work was not completed within the hour.

“Why are you are not helping?” asked the stranger on horseback.

“I am in charge. The men do as I tell them,” said the section leader, adding, “Help them yourself if you feel strongly about it.”

To the section leader’s surprise the stranger dismounted and helped the men until the job was finished. Before leaving the stranger congratulated the men for their work, and approached the puzzled section leader.

“You should notify top command next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men – and I will provide a more permanent solution,” said the stranger. Up close, the section leader now recognised General Washington, and also the lesson he’d just been taught.

Why would anyone want to be a leader? For close on a dozen years, I have led teams of people in Temenos. When I speak to people about leadership, there are people who say that they could never take on the responsibility. There is a lot of responsibility, but I don’t think it’s where people think it is.

Many people think that the main responsibility you take on is to get stuff done. I would argue that this is indeed important, but I think it is a side effect of the real responsibility of leadership. The true responsibility of leaders is to create an environment in which your people are happy and productive, which is not always easy.

If you are a leader for any length of time, you will go through ups and downs. In my 12 years, I have faced a lot of downs. The most reliable people in the world will occasionally let you down. Often it will be at the worst possible moment and after you have backed that person to the hilt. That’s pretty tough to deal with.

Sometimes, you will have someone who simply stops performing. Maybe their attendance goes down the tubes or they are not pulling their weight. Then it’s the slow painful treadmill of performance management. You hope against hope that the person steps off the treadmill, but all too often, the treadmill leads out the door. That’s pretty depressing.

There are even harder things still. Sometimes tragedy or serious illness will strike. Sometimes you have to tell your team that the cupboard is bare. Sometimes you have to let some of them go. I don’t have any children, but the experience is as close as I can imagine to choosing which of them to lose. It is something I will never, ever get used to.

So why would anyone want to be a leader ? I can tell you, it’s not the financial reward. The answer is that there is nothing like the feeling of watching your team succeed. When your team make you proud, you want everyone to know. When you see a member of your team grow as a person, it makes all the downs pale in comparison.

So my advice – if you want to get things done – stop focussing on the things and start focussing on the team and the things will take care of themselves.


3 comments on “Why be a leader?

  1. Very good thoughts. And I think it does take years to learn this lesson. Or to be able to truly apply it. As far as I am concerned, leadership became more natural once I was over 35, and had accumulated enough scars to be able to understand the depth and complexity of human beings, and therefore of your team. People do not do what you expect, they do not even do what you inspect, they do whatever they FEEL like doing. And what they FEEL like doing is the result of a wide array of factors, but as a leader, your talent will be about understanding as much as possible what those are and which ones you can have a positive influence on, and be realistic on those you have no or little influence. Once your guys feel like doing some great stuff together, harnessing this into a project plan to get things done is indeed the easier side of the story.

  2. Very good post, I liked it. If I might be permitted to express an opinion, it would be this;

    It is interesting to note that even up till the present day, so much “leading” is done in safety from way behide the front lines, if in fact the leaders are even presentat all. Leaders used to lead by being in the very front line, then somewhere along the way, an inflated view of their own importance allowed them to think maybe they were indispensable to the cause, and the concept of leadership from the rear arrose. Real leadreship used to start with “both” ability, and willingness. How many wars would be fought if all the leaders had to be in the front lines, far fewer I think. Anything you can’t or won’t do, means that you are really just a “coordinator,” of activity, and not a leader. Some leaders make it happen, some leaders wait for it to happen, and some leaders ask, “what the hell just happened?” That is my view from the bleachers.

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