Being in charge can be a heady thing. We all love the idea of being the boss, the one who gets to call the shots and be treated with respect. But, as with many things in life, we need to be careful what we wish for. We have all had experiences in our professional and personal lives with those who have handled the position well and plenty of experiences with those who haven’t.
Some people seem to have a natural affinity for the leadership role. Some crave it with near dangerous desperation. For some it is merely the natural progressive outcome of the hard work and development they have engaged in. And for some it is a mantel which gets suddenly thrust upon them by unforeseen circumstances.
However we get there once we are in the role of leader it comes with certain privileges and responsibilities. Those who are aware of them and make conscientious efforts to do right by them can make incredible and inspirational leaders. Those who seek merely the power and prestige almost always wind up making toxic, destructive, and ultimately failed ones.
There are a lot of different leadership styles, most often built upon or a reflection of the personality of the leader. Some are aggressive and bombastic while others, to steal Robin Williams’ description of Gus Van Sant, can be so subtle they are practically subliminal. Not every style is suited to every type of situation or to every type of team and thus not every leader is an ideal fit for every leadership role. Even an extremely capable leader can wind up being a bad one if they are not able to adapt to the needs of the situation or team.
Both good and bad leaders can be charismatic, driven, and initially be difficult to tell apart. We may not always be able to choose the leaders we deal with but it can be extremely important to recognize whether we should be investing in them or protecting ourselves from them. Here is are some key metrics to help differentiate them and to potentially guide our own behavior if we ever end up in the leadership role ourselves.
Directions or Directives
Are they guiding the team towards a target or are they demanding their obedience?
Sometimes being a leader means giving orders, it comes with the territory and there can be circumstances where there is no time for debate or explanation. Leadership can’t always be democratic, nor should it be, but when an instruction or order is given is it aimed at achieving a goal or is it merely a task the leader is demanding be completed because they wish it so?
Leading is by very definition the act of guiding someone from where they are now towards a different point.
Lead — verb — cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc. while moving forward
We might not need to resort to literal physical tethering but the essence of leading is guiding someone to a destination. “Because I said so” offers neither guidance nor destination. Military settings utilize very strict and hierarchical command structures to prepare and perfect a leadership system designed to function in the most extreme cases where there will be no time for debate or explanation. Outside of military or emergency medicine setting very few of us ever encounter those sorts of urgent and immediate circumstances.
Leaders who demand instant and blind obedience in all situations are far more interested in their own personal power than in overall outcomes for their team.
Do They Know Where They Are Going
You can’t lead someone to somewhere unless you have a reliable idea of where that somewhere is.
We can’t always know everything about everything and a leader doesn’t necessarily have to know more than those who are following them. The role of the leader is not to know everything but to guide the efforts of the team towards the goal. And in order to do so they need to have as clear a picture of that goal as possible.
And how we get there is a vitally important part of both achieving a goal and choosing which leader is the right one for us to invest in. The saying speaks of life being the journey not the destination in large part because we spend the vast majority of our time on the journey. An improvisational approach can work for some people but if you are not one of those people trying to function as one can be somewhat hellish. Thus, if at all possible, we want to choose a leader who is the right fit for the goal, team, circumstances, and us.
A leader who cannot offer a clear picture of the goal or the methods for reaching it is more interested in the status of the position than the responsibilities of the job.
Accountable or Blameless
Good leaders ensure credit for results, either positive or negative, are shared across the entire team including themselves. Bad leaders take personal credit for all positive results, blame others for all negative ones, and are really only interested in issuing their next set of orders.
Things don’t always work out and we all make mistakes regardless of what level of the hierarchy we are at. Leaders make mistakes just like everyone else and it is not their job to be perfect. Even great leaders make mistakes but what makes them great is acknowledging and learning from them and if the mistake was made by members of the team their focus is on guiding them to do the same.
If the only positive credit a leader offers the team is for doing as they were told then in their mind the team only exists as an extension and support for their own ego.
Do They Listen
There is a time and place for input and conversation. The role of a leader is to make sure those times and places are as available as possible.
Even when the path and task is clear people are going to have questions and part of guidance and leadership is trying to ensure those questions get answered. Perhaps not immediately and perhaps not by the leader themselves but at the very least unanswered questions can lead to extra problem which will then need to be solved and at the worst can foster feelings of neglect and resentment.
And even within the most harmonious and well matched team opinions are going to vary and differ, to say nothing of the changes in the path and approach which may become necessary along the way. No one person will have all the answers and not everyone will agree all of the time. Truly listening and hearing people is crucial to healthy relationships and exponentially more so for effective leadership.
Those who want their voice to be the only voice at all times are not looking to lead or to have followers, they are looking for an audience.
Do They Delegate
It’s not possible for one person to do everything. The whole point of having a team is to have more sets of hands to complete the necessary work. The role of the leader is to guide and facilitate, not to do it all themselves.
There will always be times when it is necessary for senior members of the team or the leader to step in and take over a task or section of the work. Unforeseen complications, circumstances, time crunches, or any other number of factors can generate a sudden urgency which doesn’t leave room for guidance or training. But the leader stepping in is meant to be a fail-safe not a first or primary approach.
Outside of such emergency situations it is part of the leader’s job to help the team acquire, build, and develop the tools and skills needed for the tasks ahead. Sometimes that means training, sometimes that means restructuring the team, and sometime it means completely revamping the approach to the pending tasks in or to make optimal use of the tools at hand.
Leaders who constantly cast themselves as the only ones capable of doing anything right are either solely interested in master-minion style power dynamics or have attached so great a personal pressure to the end result it is blocking their ability to see beyond their own personal solutions.
Do They Seek To Learn And Adapt
Those who claim to already know everything they will ever need to know are doomed to be left in the dust of history and can be counted upon to exert great efforts to keep those nearby at least a step behind them.
Some disciplines and circumstances remain relatively stable or grow and evolve rather slowly. Others can change completely and entirely overnight. Sometimes the path to a goal can stay constant and predictable but quite often the path we were working on today can wind up morphing into something almost wholly unrecognizable tomorrow.
One of the key qualities of a leader is the scope of their ability to perceive the terrain ahead. The wider the scope the greater their ability to help navigate around obstacles which may crop up, the narrower the scope the more limited their ability to alter course when necessary.
A leader who is not interested in any new information or in adapting in any way will only be able to use tools they have already used and solve problems they have already solved, rendering themselves unable to cope with anything new or help anyone else do so either.
Can They Follow
Just as it is not possible to know everything or do everything it is also not possible, or necessary, to be the leader in every situation. Guiding the team does not mean always standing out in front.
In the time of Mark Twain the conditions along the Mississippi river would change so constantly and dramatically it wasn’t possible for one single riverboat captain to master the entire journey. Each captain would master one particular section of the river, navigate their stretch then hand the wheel over to the next captain. Each were still every inch a captain but their best contribution to the team was to cede control to someone else with more relevant expertise.
A main part of the leader’s job is to cultivate and build the necessary capabilities and expertise within the team to overcome the likely, and potential, challenges ahead. A leader who insists on always being in full and complete control is more desperately attached to the power of the position than they are invested in actually achieving the goal.
Success or Winning-Losing
The quickest way to make everything about power rather than actual achievement is to make everything about winning and losing.
Success and winning might seem like very similar things and on the level of achieving a goal they are, but that is where the similarity stops. Success refers to victory over the challenges and obstacles while winning refers to victory over other people.
Challenges and obstacles can often take the form of people but approaching things in terms of success doesn’t vilify them, it simply problem solves around them. When winning is the mentality not only does it make people the primary focus it makes those people the enemy. This divisive approach makes anyone outside the team an opponent but also brings the divisiveness inside the team. Any inter-team successes now become defeats, toxifying relationships between team members rather than strengthening them.
Leaders who are only interested in winning are more motivated by a sense of power through domination than by achieving any actual goal.
Who Do The Results Benefit
Effective leaders properly utilize all the processes and approaches to achieving the goal, good leaders ensure the goal itself is actually of genuine value and benefit to the entire team.
Sometimes the work of the team can be in service to much larger or broader team and sometimes the final result can be of varying benefit from one team member to another but a genuinely worthwhile goal will have some value for each member. A good leader not only screens and cultivates the team but also screens potential goals to ensure they are justified and worthwhile.
Leaders who seek and promote goals which only, or primarily, benefit themselves are not leading the team they are using them.
Do As They Say or As They Do
Part of what can make leadership so isolating is that others not only look to them for guidance but also for example.
Leaders are allowed, they need to be allowed, to make mistakes. Making a mistake does not set a bad example, handling it poorly does. There are perks and privileges which can come with leadership but the caveat attached is being held to a higher standard of conduct. Leaders are needed to be sources of stability in the face of chaos, certainty in the face of the unknown, and determination in the face of hopelessness.
This does not mean leaders are not ever allowed to feel uncertain or anxious or demoralized it just means they need the capacity to set it aside when in the role as leader, most often by cultivating space and supports to take a brief step back from the role and process their own feelings.
If a leader’s words and actions are not congruent or are completely contradictory it destroys trust in the leader and in the rest of the team.
How Often Do They Remind You
This one is a simple one. A leader who needs to constantly remind everyone they are the leader is not a very good leader.
If someone is constantly declaring, flouting, and imposing their status they are doing so because their actions and results will not do it for them. These are the same types of leaders who will demand demonstrative loyalty at every turn because at their core they know they are unable to genuinely inspire it otherwise.
Good leaders show you they are the leader by leading. Bad leaders remind you constantly because they fear otherwise you’ll be likely to forget.
Our culture is replete with messages endorsing the idea that being in charge is the ideal pursuit. The role of leader can certainly come with perks and privileges but being the leader also comes with a great deal of responsibilities and can be rather isolating. Not all of us actually want a front and center role.
Many would rather be members of the team, to support the team, rather than be the one in charge of it which is a good thing. We don’t need everyone to be leaders. Use ‘cooks in the kitchen’ or ‘hands on the wheel’ or whatever other image you like but an entire team of leaders all trying to lead is a recipe for disaster.
That being said not all those who aspire to be leaders are worth investing in. Some are good, some are okay, some are great, and some are terrible. Bad leaders seek to command others to win something they personally desire. Good leaders guide others in the most effective possible ways towards goals which offer the greatest amount of benefit to everyone involved.
We have plenty of examples of both good and terrible leaders around us in this global time of crisis. From our families to our work-places to our governments we need to seek out and invest in good leaders rather than be sucked in by the toxic charisma of bad ones.
And just to be clear, simply because they talk about things you agree with does not someone a great leader. Actually caring about the role and responsibilities of being a leader does that.