What happens to an organization when the leader is unwilling or unable to lead? Many people believe that leadership is merely being able to tell others what to do, however, this definition is extremely limited in scope if not inaccurate.
Being a leader requires that you first understand what it means to follow. Why, you ask? Until you can understand the position of those taking direction from you, you will have difficulties gaining their trust and their ability to buy into what you are positioning. This does not mean that you have to stay in the trenches your entire career but you should remain grounded in the plight of those you are attempting to lead. I once read an article about a retail CEO starting at a new company. He began by working as a sales clerk and worked his way up through every position in the company. I found this admirable because he was able to have firsthand knowledge of the issues his employees were facing on a daily basis. Sometimes as leaders, we become so far removed from those who our decisions affect most that our decisions become detrimental to the organization and to the morale of our team members.
Next, you must have vision. How can you lead someone if you do not know where you are going? How can you lead when you allow your followers to provide your direction? There may be cases when you are unsure or your vision needs clarification but as a leader, you should not find yourself clueless about the direction of your project or organization.
Additionally, you need to be flexible. In theory we like to believe that our followers should be behind us no matter what; however, the reality is that we have to meet them where they are and pull them along. Everyone has different communication styles based on their upbringing, education levels, gender and many other factors. It does not make them incapable of being good team members but as a leader it your responsibility to find ways to engage them. A good leader understands that not everyone is motivated by the same thing. Some are motivated by money, power and/or recognition. Having knowledge of your team members will help you to engage them more effectively in your mission.
Finally, being a good leader requires you to stand up for what is right, at all times. You cannot pick when you will side with good or evil rather you have to commit yourself to making ethical decisions and living in a way that people can respect you in your presence and in your absence. I once worked with a guy who would say derogatory things about a coworker when she wasn’t around but would sing her praises in her presence. When confronted about this behavior, he did not understand what he was doing wrong. He felt that since he was cordial in her presence then everything was okay. However, what he failed to realize is that everyone paid attention to what he said in both instances and they eventually lost respect for him because of his inability to be consistent.
Many times our desire to be liked and a part of the crowd can impair our ability to be a good leader. We believe that people want someone like them to guide them and that they want to be included in the decision-making. However, in many cases people will respect your leadership ability when you understand their position as a member of the team, when you have vision for the project, when you can be flexible and allow input while exhibiting ethical behavior at all times. In the absence of leadership, no one will follow you. Can you really consider yourself a leader if no one follows?