How Would You Answer This Question About Your Leadership?

A question every leader should be asking themselves in order to figure out how successful they'll ultimately be in their collective efforts.

When it comes to leadership, there are many facets that we examine and explore in our drive to learn how we can succeed in leading our team and organization. But one aspect that’s rarely looked at is how the way we view our role can leave us creating more of a polarizing effect than a unifying one.

It’s a notion that I’ve been pondering about as I observe the reactions to the last week’s inauguration of of the new US president. Certainly, there can be no doubt that – regardless of your political leanings – the new US president is certainly a polarizing figure. In that light, it’s not surprising to see a growing division within the US population between those who support and champion him, and those who oppose him and what he represents.

But what’s been interesting to note is that small fragment found in between these two diverging groups – people who are openly against the new presidency, but who are encouraging their fellow Americans to put aside their differences and to support him as their president.

As a Canadian, I have to admit to finding this notion to be a bit odd. Granted, I can understand the emotional need behind these pleas – after all, who wouldn’t be hurt and dismayed from seeing a growing division and outright resentment brewing within the various groups that make up your country.

And yet, for me at least, the ability to openly challenge, criticize, and oppose your nation’s leader is one of the very hallmarks of both democracy and patriotism. Indeed, I for one was very vocal in publicly speaking against both our previous Prime Minister and previous Quebec Premier because I sincerely believed that their vision for my country and for my province were not what was best for our society, and certainly not what would guarantee a more prosperous and stable future for everyone.

In other words, my dissension and criticism wasn’t simply directed towards their role of being the Prime Minister of Canada or the Quebec Premier. Rather, it was about their vision and their goals, and whether those were things that I wanted to personally commit myself as a citizen to helping become a part of our collective reality.

That distinction is something that we often recognize in our conversations and examinations about the nature of leadership; that people commit their best efforts not because of who we are, but because of what we stand for and what we hope to achieve.

As such, the idea that people should simply support their leader for the purposes of creating the illusion of collective harmony is not only troublesome in terms of ensuring accountability amongst those in charge, but it also diminishes the underlying motivational drive that compels people to commit their best selves to the work they do.

It also reveals an important question that leaders need to ask themselves: why do people follow you? Is it obligation or inspiration? [Share on Twitter]

It’s not a question that as leaders, we’re used to asking ourselves, and certainly not one we afford ourselves time to reflect on given the increasing demands on our time and attention, not to mention the faster-pace at which our organization needs to operate at in order to stay on top of things.

And while most leaders don’t have to worry about mass protests against their leadership in their neighbourhoods or in countries far away, that doesn’t mean that we’re not immune to the danger of taking our authority over others for granted, leaving us with people who follow us more out of necessity than belief in our vision of tomorrow.

Indeed, a recent study by The Ken Blanchard Group found that more than 80% of leaders don’t listen to their employees. Furthermore, they found that while 70% of employees want to have discussions with their leaders about the work they do and their professional goals, less than 30% of leaders are actually talking about these issues with those under their care.

The study’s findings reveal a dangerous blindspot that every leader needs to be aware of – namely, that if we’re not willing or are not making the effort to listen to our employees about things as innocuous as how can we help them to achieve their professional goals, then how open could we be to listening to opposing or challenging views within our organization?

In other words, how do we make sure that we’re not surrounding ourselves with people who are only interested in confirming what we know, rather than informing us of what we’re not seeing or understanding? And going back to the question I posed above, how can we be sure that we’re not simply relying on our positional authority – as opposed to working to garner genuine support amongst those we lead – to push our vision forward?

Seen from this perspective, it becomes easier to understand why we need to be asking ourselves what’s the underlying motivation that compels people to follow our leadership. That the position or title we hold is not enough to ensure that our employees will bring forth their best efforts in order to drive our collective success.

Rather, what’s needed is the intentional effort on our part to create opportunities for all of our employees to do work that matters, so that their commitment is borne not simply from a sense of obligation, but from a personal and meaningful connection to the shared purpose of our organization.

In other words, our vision needs to be inspiring and inclusive in order to bring out the best in everyone we lead [Share on Twitter].

In his recent Harvard Business Review article, Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor wrote:

“you can’t be an effective leader in business, politics, or society unless you encourage those around you to speak their minds, to bring attention to hypocrisy and misbehavior, and to be as direct and strong-willed in their evaluations of you as you are in your strategies and plans for them.”

This idea lies at the very heart of this simple question – why do people follow you? It’s simply not enough – especially now as the world enters a period of global economic and political uncertainty – for leaders in any domain of society to expect people to follow them out of some misplaced notion of obligation, fostering public solidarity or worse, due to blind patriotism.

Rather, we must be open and supportive to hearing dissent from those we lead, of being willing to hear about the realities they actually face, as opposed to the narrative we choose to create about what’s like to work under our leadership. We need to remind ourselves that leadership is not about us; it’s about supporting those we lead to achieve the extraordinary [Share on Twitter].

If there’s one underlying message that drove me to write this piece it’s this fundamental truth about what it takes to succeed at leadership –namely, that the reason people should follow us is because we care about them, not because they’re obligated to [Share on Twitter].

This is the inherent drive found in all those leaders we admire and try to emulate as it’s this very idea that kept them going in the face of adversity and discord; of what compelled them not to settle for the status quo, but to dream of a better future for all under their care. Each of them understood that the true function of leadership is helping others to succeed, and not simply helping ourselves [Share on Twitter].

Since the outcome of the recent US presidential election, there’s been a growing sense of uncertainty, of a wary wait-and-see outlook for what actions and decisions will be put forth by the new US administration, and the rippling impact those choices will have on the US and on various parts of the world.

But while there may be a current climate of uncertainty and doubt in the political and global economic arenas, one area where there should never be a lack of clarity in your understanding is why do people follow you, and with it, whether we are in fact being the kind of leader who inspires others to bring forth their best selves to ensure that we are creating a future where everyone succeeds and thrives.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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