Thoughts, Engagements, and Updates

28 Apr 2014

The Problem With Leading Leaders


Ever worked in an environment where your colleagues look down on you with an “I-can-do-it-better” attitude, especially when you are the leader? It is one thing to lead people who are miles away from your expertness, but quite frankly it is hard work to lead talents who may actually know the job better than you. Unless you are a total swellheaded bureaucrat, you recognize, irksomely or grudgingly, that many of the people you are supposed to lead are smarter, more talented, sophisticated, or even more powerful than you are. Many of the people you lead, whether you like it or not, are leaders in their own right. And since creating an effective team is one of the most important tasks for every leader, how then can we harness the individual talents of a team of leaders to achieve a singular goal? This is really hard to come by, especially in a case where everyone is a leader. It can be extremely difficult for the leader of the group to develop a team that truly gels. This article describes some of the challenges of leading leaders and some important steps to take when leading other leaders, whether they are within your own organizations or on the outside.

According to Jeswald Salacuse, the challenge of leading leaders arises particularly in managing big organizations — organizations with heavy concentrations of personnel whose education, skills, wealth, and influence are substantially above the average. Managers of professional service firms for example face the task of leading leaders every day as they seek to manage lawyers, management consultants, physicians, investment bankers, research analysts, accountants, and portfolio managers, to name just a few, whose talents are the assets of the organization and who as partners may also be its owners. Heads of academic institutions, research organizations, and think tanks confront a similar task in leading professors, scientists, and scholars. CEOs are also not left out here. They are faced with the challenge of managing talented employees that may do the job better than them.

Not only must leaders learn to engage and manage an increasingly educated and specialized work force, but are also faced with the “almighty” board of directors who may have given the leader the job at the first place and have been chosen because of their expertise, achievements and reputation.

Ultimately, the challenge of leading leaders is found in almost every strata of entrepreneurship. Even in politics, where authority is often vague and even nonexistent, offers much better lessons for leading leaders.

Two historical efforts to lead leaders occurred in 1990-91 and again in 2003, when the United States went to war against Iraq. The former was a success and led by George Bush Sr., the 41st President of the United States, as he skillfully mobilized nations to drive Iraq from Kuwait with the approval of the United Nations. This coalition, of course, did not spring out of nowhere. In order to create it, Bush Sr. had to lead the leaders of other countries. A similar attempt was made 12 years later by his son George Bush Jr. to oust Sadam Hussain from the seat of power, though succeeded in removing Hussain, but failed to effectively lead leaders of most important countries and the United Nations for a military attack against Iraq. While the two situations were different in respect to the time and group involved, but one cannot help but wonder why Bush Sr. succeeded but the son failed.

Many will certainly point to France for the failure of the fearless President Bush Jr. since the French refused to join the coalition of Iraqi destroyers and even urged other nations to oppose Bush’s ambition.

An examination of the conduct of George H.W. Bush in 1990-91 and that of his son in 2003 leads one to conclude that the father played a much more diplomatic role than the son. President George Bush Sr. proceeded to arrange a strong bond on many levels which first started with having direct one-on-one contacts with the leaders of other countries through diplomatic missions and representations at various mutual levels which inspired a trust for a coalition. While President George W. Bush’s approach in 2003 was that of a status of a superpower: other countries had no choice but to follow the United States. Moreover, if other countries did not follow the United States, the Bush administration declared publicly that the United States would go to war alone. George H. W. Bush’s leadership was based on persuasion before action. While the son’s administration talked about “a coalition of the willing,” says Jeswald Salacuse, “as if that coalition would come into existence without the need for the United States to actively work to create it through leadership.” Rather than deal directly with other foreign leaders (especially the reluctant European leaders), as his father did, Bush Jr. often delegated that task to other members of his administration, notably Secretary of State Colin Powell, and later to United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. And instead of communicating one-on-one to persuade other leaders to follow him, George W. Bush often conveyed his messages through the media, a fact that tended to annoy the leaders he was seeking to lead.

In comparing these cases, one will learn that for a group of leaders to work together effectively as a team without having challenges, the leader of the group must first have to understand that leadership is not a matter of position or superiority but of relationships. And effective communication is the best way to build these relationships. At the end of the day, people will actually follow you because it is in their interests to do so, and not because you have the resources or position of leadership.

It’s easy to see the uniqueness of teamwork when watching football, for if a teammate misses a block it is on video for everyone to see and critique. However, talent is not enough to win a championship, for we know teams that have won with less individual skill than losing teams possess. In fact, a player with superior talent may prevent people from gelling together into a team. The same can happen at the office, in politics and the list goes on. Winning occurs when people work well together, as a team.

A sound understanding of Christ leadership model is important here. Jesus understood the demands of being a leader. Jesus knew that leaders need to replenish their spiritual energy or else they will be crushed under the pressure. If Jesus withdrew from the demands of His schedule to pray – why don’t we? (Mark 1:35; Mark 6:31). Jesus did not neglect intimacy with His Father when leading his team of 12 to proclaim one gospel.

Learn to address disregard with regard. In your determination to have the final say, you will notice that the last word is always not spoken and respect not given properly. Silence can be one of the greatest indicators of power indeed. Leaders secure in their power (especially over the presence or will of their colleagues), do not give the last word. There is just no need. Communication is not about you talking and neither is listening about you hearing. There is something about treating people with respect that makes them want to “worship” you. It works! It rocks! Bring people “home” by treating them with respect.

Ultimately, “you need to put great people on the bus if you want to build a great company, or a great team,” says Jim Collins. And of course, you then need to let them drive. Working with talented people can be challenging, but doing so is definitely worth the effort. And realizing that teamwork is challenging because of our different expectations might give you that understanding spirit to pray for and care for that difficult team member of your group.

Stop fooling yourself, no one succeeds alone!

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