Perhaps one of the reasons there is so much emphasis on the idea of leadership is our obsession with self and achievement. We hear so much about the rewards and importance of leadership that it is possible that we see leadership as a badge of success. Western society is becoming more and more obsessed with the idea of personal success as represented by money, fame, status, position and, possibly leadership. Perhaps it is this need to be unique, to be important, to be special that has created our obsession with leadership.
Leadership is about influencing others in the pursuit of group goals. Yet leadership is not about leaders. At least not entirely. Leadership is about the collective good of an organization or group. The role of the leader is to facilitate the achievement of the collective goal. Our leaders need to be concerned about the members of their teams, not about themselves.
Yet we don’t often talk about the demands of leadership. Leadership often requires that we make difficult, painful decisions. It can require that we make personal sacrifice for the good of the group. As leaders, we sometimes need to make unpopular decisions that alienate us from others within the organization. We sometimes must make the organization a priority over our personal needs, our family or our careers. Those of us who have a high need for affiliation typically do not succeed as leaders, because they need to be liked. Most leaders need to have a tougher skin than that.
Our expectations of leaders is very high. Research shows that we believe that leaders have more control and influence over a situation than they actually do. In fact, followers attribute about 50% of extreme success or failure to a leader, when they actually explained only 15% of the variation in success. In other words, we want to believe that leaders have more impact than they actually do. (Meindl, “The Romance of Leadership”, 1985). We expect leaders to be decisive, consistent, smart, empathetic, creative, inspirational and empowering, just to name a few behaviours and traits. Most leaders will disappoint, given these high expectations. To take on a leadership role is to court failure.
I keep reading about the leadership vacuum in our world. The leadership development industry generates billions each year in revenues. Demand for leadership is increasing. Yet at the same time, we’re vaguely dissatisfied with our leadership. Perhaps we expect too much. Or, perhaps we’ve focused too much on the rewards of being a leader and too little on its demands.