When leaders lose their way
The writer

When leaders lose their way

Leadership at every level comes with immense power. Leaders are expected to use their authority and power to serve their stakeholders. Sadly, many leaders use their leadership power to exploit those they are leading.

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In organisations and communities with weak governance structures and little accountability, the team members and citizens are at the mercy of the leader. The leader decides the liberties and freedoms that the leader can enjoy. 

It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

The corrupt use of leadership power shows up in various ways including, but not limited to, not listening for others’ inputs, being wasteful, abusing office, leading in search of praise, only welcoming praise singers, interfering and making decisions on behalf of stakeholders who are supposed to make their own decisions.

Unfortunately, many leadership development programs focus on communication skills, executive presence, and the skills that a leader needs to be effective.

Rarely does one come across a leadership program that discusses how leaders can lead effectively and not fall prey to the trappings of leadership power. 

Our flagship leadership development program, the Essentials of Leaders, has an entire module dedicated to dealing with the challenges of leaders. We make it a point to dissect the challenges of leadership with the aim of equipping leaders to resolve them. 

Guarding against trappings of leadership power becomes critical when leaders operate in team and communities with low levels of accountability and praise-singing. Even when you fail in battle, they sing your praise for losing.

The story goes that Marcus Aurelius hired an assistant to follow him as he walked through the Roman town square. The assistant’s only role was to, whenever Marcus Aurelius was praised, whisper in his ear, "You’re just a man. You’re just a man."

Recognise the challenges and talk about the issues

The trappings of leadership power must not be an off-limit conversation for leaders. Leaders must share their experiences and the strategies they use to stay grounded.

Daniel Vasella, Former CEO/Chairman, of Novartis, used this approach with his team. He said, “I talk to my team about the seductions that come with taking on a leadership role.

There are many different forms: sexual seduction, money, and praise. You need to be aware of how you can be seduced to be able to resist and keep your integrity”.  

Let the team know where you stand

A leader must share their values with the team. Do you use your leadership power to advance a personal interest or shield your favourites from going through disciplinary procedures when they are in the wrong?

Let the team also know that these are unacceptable whether you are a leader or not. The rules should not just be in the employee handbook.

Patrick Awuah of Ashesi University makes it clear to his team that condoning ethical breaches is unacceptable and cannot be explained away by any leader. 

In his view, ethical breaches lead to summary dismissal. Supporting team members dealing with underperformance is important, but leaders who abuse their office have no place.

Create boundaries

One other approach effective leaders have used to tame the negative impact of their leadership power is boundary management. 

Becoming the CEO after having spent several years working in the business, it’s easy to think that you can do everything and make every decision for other leaders who are involved in the business. Going down this road will lead to a loss of trust. 

Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation, who succeeded his dad knew that he had to create boundaries to handle the enormous power that his role brings. This is what he had to say, “You need to decide what you cannot do with the power you have. 

I know what I can do and can’t do.” Your best intentions will not save you. The trappings of leadership are alluring and you must define your boundaries and stick to them to be able to withstand the negative effects of leadership power as you ascend to higher and higher levels of leadership authority.

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Look for voices that paint the reality

Many leaders stay away from people who knew them when they were not in leadership positions.

They run away from those who can speak truth to power. This marks the beginning of going down the slippery slope. Shapiro, the famous cartoonist from South Africa, when he decided to stop publishing his works, talks about the day he received a call from Nelson Mandela.

He had met Mandela four years earlier and his cartoons had become more critical of the ANC. He got a call from Mandela who told him, “I am upset with you”. “That’s your job” Mandela added.

For Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, the voice of reality is her mother who asks her to get the milk after she has presided over a meeting discussing multibillion-dollar investments. She is human and undertakes all the family activities every employee undertakes at home in addition to being ready for work. 

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Have you tuned in to only the praise singers or you are open to the reality which may not be what you wish for? 

Reach out for help, if necessary

If you are struggling with the pressures of leadership, seek help immediately. Once you start going down that treacherous road to ruin it is sometimes very difficult to return until you are at the end of the road and your reputation is all but obliterated.

So, to whom do you listen? Remember Marcus Aurelius. It takes effort to silence the voice of leadership power in the leader’s head. Who is your assistant or accountability partner - the voice that saves you when the applause is loudest?

…..be of good cheer!

The writer is the Founder of the CEO Accelerator Program and Chief Learning Strategist at TEMPLE Advisory.

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He specializes in leadership development, executive coaching and strategy consulting. The mission of The Leadership Project is to harvest highly effective leadership practices and share them in a manner that other leaders can easily incorporate into their leadership practice.

If you have an idea or leadership practice to share, kindly write to [email protected]. Until you read from us again, keep leading…..from leader to leader, one practice at a time.

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