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“Let me Lead!”

Posted by direwolff on February 23, 2005

After having worked with many entrepreneurs in my life and having had the opportunity to see both good leaders and bad ones, there's one comment no leader should ever have to make…"let me lead".

In my youth how one became a leader was an abstract idea to me. Sure in some cases people voted for this person, in other cases it just seemed like every one followed one individual who perhaps had more charisma than others. As I got older and was more directly exposed to more leaders my thoughts slowly evolved on this subject. At first it seemed that what made a good leader was someone who was a domain expert, who knew all there was to know about the business, sport or country they would be leading. It seemed like this person also had to know every one else's jobs or roles better than the people actually performing those functions. The tough part with that idea conceptually was how was this possible. Every role had so many intricacies, how would any one ever be able to gain superlative experiences in all of these areas?

It wasn't until later in my working life, that I had the good fortune of being exposed to so many different types of leaders that my understanding for this role evolved considerably. What became clear was that the best leaders were not necessarily those who knew it all, not necessarily the domain experts, or at least not the ones within organizations that knew the most about the business they would be leading, but rather those with the true and earnest understanding for what I'll term, the "people matter".

The people matter refers to an understanding that people do matter and that success is defined by one's ability to draw the most out of people since they are so integrally important to the success of any organization. It wasn't that these leaders knew how to manipulate people, but more that they understood (or "got") people and had an earnest desire to help them succeed and to help them achieve their own goals in pursuit of the organizational goals. In some ways and in my early understanding of this concept, it seemed like it was their skillful handling of people that they had mastered, but later I understood this at a deeper level. It wasn't about skill, it was about being passionate about people and deriving great pleasure from working with them to accomplish things.

There was a common view of leaders with those on top of the pyramid, able to berate any one who didn't live up to their expectations, able to demand action and having people scurry to get it done because they were told to. That antiquated image of a leader no longer makes up the repetoire of leadership skills. The ability to demean and belittle people no longer gets the desired effect. The crushing of people's spirits into submission no longer gets the job done as it might have back in the '50s (as we were lead to believe from black and white movies with the "boss" being the cranky old guy who yells at every one around them). Today, it's the person who truly loves people and understands what makes them tick and how to bring that into alignment with the objectives of the organization, that's the person who can take the reins of an organization and drive a team to a successful outcome.

This outcome is reached because this love for people is reciprocated by the team's desire to achieve for the leader, to show him or her that their desire to make the organization, country or team succeed is as selfless to them as it appears to be for their leader. What's more is that the successful leader will enable the team members to make the decisions, to invest in those decisions, to stake themselves on those decisions, so that the team can feel a sense of accomplishment in line with helping the organization climb to its next level of growth. This all may sound idealistic, but in reality it's just hard to do. But for those very good leaders, what differentiates them is that they just seem able to do this without any noticeable effort, like it's their second nature.

So back to my initial comment about the words never to say as a leader, "let me lead". These words are never uttered by the successful leader, because they never need to say it. Let's consider the three ways one becomes a leader; (1) to be hired or elected, (2) to be picked as the 2nd in command and have the first in command (the leader) die to leave the organization, and (3) to be the founder or originator of the organization.

In the first instance this requires that the person displays what we might call leadership qualities, either by having previously had such a role, or already exemplifying those qualities which we associate with leadership. In this case, asking people to "let me lead" is tantamount to not having been able to live up to the expectations of those who elected or picked that person to lead. Asking the question is only acceptable in such instances where the reason this statement is being made is because one has not gotten the opportunity to even get started with the task due to mostly likely, an antagonistic political climate or disruptions not having to do with any actions of the leader.

In the second instance, the person was never voted or elected into the role, and perhaps was allowed to become a defacto leader. In such cases, the term leader is hardly applicable unless once in this role, the person lives up to it and by default does become a leader afterall. But in any event, the use of the statement in this scenario, "let me lead", is a plea from a person who should never have been put in the position to lead.

In the third instance, the person by default has the role of leader and can do one of two things, keep it or loose it. You can't gain what you already have. The use of the "let me lead" statement here is one of abject failure to carry out the task of leadership. At such time as one has to ask, all respect from the team disappears (if any remained prior to this statement), because leadership cannot be bestowed on the basis of this statement, it can only be held by those who are leaders, by their actions, their deeds, and by the desire of those supporting them.

In my career it has been my observation that every one of those who have ever made that statement have done so because of either a loss of confidence from their team or because they were not leaders to begin with. The statement in and of itself is the antithesis of the fact that leadership is about people matter. If anything, it reflects a lack of understanding for people matter and a self-centered view of that role that suggests that people don't matter and that respect does not need to be earned but can simply be given. This, a leader does not make.

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