Who Decides Whether Leadership Is Successful?

World leadership styles have given me much to consider over the past few years.  Increasingly so in the past few weeks.  I’ve observed multiple varied demonstrations of leadership and peoples’ response to it, trying to strain out the lessons that we can apply to how we lead in our smaller “worlds”.
In my mind, leadership on any stage is a deeply personal endeavour that bears the consequences of who you choose to be on that stage.  Whether we speak up in a team meeting or lead a discussion over the family dinner table; whether we lead a social circle, organisation or country, we do so from the sum of our personal choices, beliefs, views, morals and experiences.  Whatever our leadership style, the way it affects others will eventually be reflected back at us.
When looking at the world stage, trying to draw the parallels between styles of governance (democracy, dictatorship, socialism etc) and leadership styles in life and in business makes for some complex conversations.  Leading a company or team cannot always be a democracy for many reasons, but neither can it successfully be a dictatorship.  Similarly in the cockpit, if I need to divert my aircraft to another destination, I cannot guarantee every passenger onboard a vote about where that might be.  Few leaders in life and business are voted into position by the people they lead, nor do they necessarily only serve those they lead.
There are times when leadership decisions have to be more task, result or outcome-oriented than people-oriented.  However, by definition, we must have someone to lead to be considered a leader.  For that reason, regardless of the style of leadership, the success of it will always come down to the people it ultimately affects and their response to that leadership and those decisions.
It’s worth noting when we judge our world leaders that each of them is merely human.  As complex as each of us are, so are they.  As complex as any form of leadership may be (I’m currently raising a nearly 16-year-old son so feel fully qualified to speak about the humanness of “leadership”) there can be none more so than leading a country that comes with its own history, relationships, threats, opportunities, culture, beliefs etc.
Because of those complexities and that humanness, I’ve personally found it more fruitful to examine individual instances rather than the murky history leading up to any one response or action.  Identifying these instances when world leadership reflects something specific, for better or worse, allows us to examine how the same may apply in our own environments.
For example, I wrote last week about Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy who has obviously featured heavily recently and who has roused response from most people.  I used the phrase “of the people” when speaking about his decision to stay present with his countrymen rather than retreating to safety.  He is an average human from the ranks of those he leads, willing to stay on their level and in their experience rather than extricating himself to safety.  Whilst it often seems practical for leadership to maintain some elevation, there are things you cannot know without being down in the trenches with those you lead.
I was also struck by a video of him bringing his own chair to speak eye-to-eye with the press rather than addressing them from the podium available on the stage.  The vision of that simple gesture will stay with me always in stark contrast to a number of leaders who seem unwilling or unable to sit with their people on eye level and have a conversation with them.  Again, I don’t know all the political or personal complexities, but I know which style of leadership I prefer.  It seems evident that I am not alone in that feeling either.
Another product of my observation of world leadership lately is being repeatedly beaten over the head with the word “oligarchy”.  I must confess to never having heard it prior to 2022, but its overuse spurred me to educate myself.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, an oligarchy is a small group of people having control of a country or organisation.  It’s listed as a different kind of governance to what we understand as democracy, and yet has notably been used to describe leadership in countries we generally regard as democratic.  It’s also been used to describe leadership in areas of industry that have great influence across the globe.
Now, as someone who subscribes to the 7P’s of planning and has definite “precision tendencies”, I can see how it may be valuable at times to have a small group of highly knowledgeable, specialised and/or focused people attending to the bulk of the decision making whilst the greater team generates movement unencumbered by the weight of needing to make those decisions.  The intention behind doing so is good.  Far better, I suspect, than many of the oligarchies described on the world stage today.
What is notable though, is how often even with the best of intentions, that small group of specialised decision-makers get carried away and forget that they came forth from a greater team whom they still represent and are a part of – where they forget to communicate back and forth with the greater representatives whom they stand for.  Examples abound where team members (be they corporate or country) cease to feel involved and respected and instead feel left behind or left out of decisions that have a wide-reaching impact on their lives and livelihoods.  This quickly creates separation where there was previously none and suspicion where there was previously trust.  Quality of work suffers as energy dwindles, and allegiance may be challenged.
Not everyone is cut out for leadership.  Some choose it and others have it thrust upon them.  There are no perfect leaders either.  Every one of them is fallible and every one of them has got where they are by trial and error.  These same things can be said for every leader of a country, of a corporate, of a team, or of a family.
It seems a simple conclusion to me then, that regardless of what we need to get done today, we are people leading people – and there is no other way to succeed at that than with a people-focused approach.  There are times when we must remain elevated and able to make ultimate, big picture decisions; but we must be eye-to-eye often with those we lead if we’re going to make those decisions in ways that maintain trust and security.  We must ensure continuity, but not at the expense of leaving loyal and dedicated people behind because we have jumped too far ahead.  Leaders are only leaders if they have someone to lead, and ultimately the success of their leadership will be decided by whether those they lead continue to come along with them, investing their energy as they do so.

by Christen Killick

March 14th, 2022

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