A True Leader Is Not Always the Person at the Top

From Elon Musk to Kim Jong-un, people at the top are loved and hated worldwide, but what truly makes a leader? Isaac Getz is Professor at ESCP EUROPE Business School, and author of award-winning book Freedom, Inc. Here Prof. Getz explains to CEO Today what truly forms the defining attributes of a real leader.

In recent months the media has been awash of stories about the loss of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership, some of which have led to subsequent attempts to topple her from within her own party.

In the US a number of Republican leaders have also expressed the loss of confidence in their president. A recent report noted donors and strategists as being more hesitant to stand by Donald Trump running again for President in 2020. John McCain told the New York Times that they see “weakness in this President.”

“Loss of confidence in X’s leadership” such as this is a classic line, often followed by the change at the top of a government or a company, the effect of which can last for some time.

Commonly, it can be viewed as the immutable laws of politics—national or corporate—just as sun rising in the east and setting in the west. But research on leadership shatters this common view. In fact true leadership is very rare – it’s rather like a comet passing by than a sun – and this is something both Mrs May and President Trump could take heed of.

True leaders are respected

There is one key criterion to be called a true leader: people follow you not because they must but because they want to. The problem is that most people at the top don’t really know if people behind them gather by obligation or will. So how does one become a true leader, sure of having the real followers?

Through my study of several dozen true leaders, I could identify the elements setting them apart. I borrow the first from Robert Davids, who headed six companies in his life, from the age of 15. According to Davids, a person becomes a leader not because she is loved or liked, but because she is respected.

Respect can mean different things to different people. For Davids it means treating people with fairness. Another leader, defines respect as seeking people input and participation, then seriously considering and incorporating it into the decisions that impact them. Yet another definition of respect is listening the others without judgement and interruption and providing them with authentic feedback.

Despite the differences between respect definitions it boils down to this: a true leader treats people with respect demonstrated through consideration of them and trust of their intelligence.

Transformation of traditional command-and-control

Though this sounds abstract, in practice it requires no less than a radical transformation of traditional command-and-control behaviors, because the latter deny people consideration and trust.

Put simply, when presented with a problem by her team, a leader doesn’t take charge (“here’s what you will do”), but instead gives respect: “I trust that if you take a bit of time you’ll come up with a solution.” So that her team doesn’t deem her unsupportive, the leader asks for when the solution is expected, and offers to pass by to discuss what the team has found. If the team wishes so. If not, she just asks to be informed about the solution the team has decided to put in place. Giving people responsibility – or giving them back power – is yet another way to show them respect.

Corporate liberation – sweeping Europe

This leadership approach is seen through the corporate liberation movement, which is sweeping companies and public services in France and Europe at the moment (including major companies such as Michelin, Decathlon and Airbus). These companies are gradually putting in place new practices which give employees freedom and responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the company’s vision. While they haven’t been prisons, liberated companies unleash employee initiative and potential which have been stifled by command-and-control practices.

By the way, in these companies, even the vision is elaborated with the input and participation of employees – not a description of what will happen, but of what employees dream to happen.

Ego gets in the way

The person who can initiate this radical transformation is one at the top, because only she has a mandate to change the organizational environment. The first step she takes is to work on her ego and control issues.

A person thinking of herself as the most intelligent in the room won’t be able to seek people input and participation, nor to seriously incorporate it into the decisions that impact them. Ego will prevent her to give people respect and as a result, they will stop following her.

In a nutshell, the less a true leader the person is, the more power—carrots and sticks—she will need to stay at the top. Until the people will pull her down. And they will.

The key lesson to top politicians, Theresa May and Donald Trump included, as well as CEOs, is that loss of confidence is a symptom of lack of leadership. That is, of the lack of respect demonstrated through their consideration and trust of the intelligence in people working with them.

By repeatedly saying to people “I trust if you take a bit of time, you will find a solution” at the end a leader may hear them declaring “we did it on our own”. She will also discover that they have acquired tremendous confidence in their true leader.

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