Leadership is not the task of getting things done. It is equally not the task of getting people to want to get things done, despite the frequently quoted definitions offered by some of our modern leadership teachers.
Leadership is the task of shaping the character, potential and contribution of others for their own sake and the sake of society at large. The tasks that we leverage to go about doing the work of leadership are whatever specific tasks are available to us, whatever they may be.
The specifics of those tasks – a job, a mission, a project, a business, a goal – are unimportant. They are means to an end, means that display an importance to many leaders in the everyday world that most rarely, if ever, catch a glimpse of their true calling as leaders.
I bear witness to the blindness regularly. The blindness is two-fold. Those who are blind are not only blind to their true purpose, but are blind to the existence of their own blindness. It appears as disappointment with others, impatience with others, a desire to rule and control others, and a distrust of others. The focus on tasks over people is obvious, but so is the focus on people as means to an end rather than as people.
Leaders who come to me for guidance on how to be better leaders sometimes find that the source of their trouble – unmet goals, unrealized potential of others, insubordination, distrust and betrayal – is themselves. They feel certain that if only the people who reported to them were more conformable, pliable, honest, quick to wish to please, quick to complete the tasks assigned to them, quick to achieve and sustain a level of loyalty and obedience … if all these wishes were met, they believe, then leadership would not be the mystery that has eluded them.
Such leaders believe people are children to be taught and disciplined, or reluctant followers to be constantly watched over, or simply assets meant to operate machinery, process orders or convey information. Such leaders talk often of leadership, and of the managing of people, but they in fact know very little of either.
The first time a client with such ideas of leadership began to realize their ideas of leadership were about to be challenged was the moment they admitted that the people who reported to them were in fact there to make the leader’s job easier. What they would often cite as the need to have people complete a task, a job, a project or a function, the conversation ultimately returned to the simple fact that the work they were performing was being done to ensure the leader himself was meeting his objective to have the work done.
The sooner the work was done, and without delay or difficulty, the sooner the leader felt they had been successful at leading their team. “Yes, of course,” I would reply. “They’ve done the job you wanted. The job you needed. Your job.”
“Consider, however, that you may have this backward. The work is theirs to do, I agree, but it is not their job to make your life easier by fulfilling that work on your behalf and your reputation’s behalf. They are meant to do the work, and your job is to make their job easier. Easier by removing obstacles that might keep them from completing their work, delays that might frustrate them, distractions that might detour them, and any other myriad number of problems, complications, interoffice political turmoil, and challenges that might keep them from doing what you hired them to do in the first place.
“Do you want to be a better leader? Make their job easier.”
People are not the tasks they perform, or the job description that informs them. They are people, with hearts, minds and souls all their own. They don’t need a boss. They only administratively need a manager. What they need is a leader. Leadership is people, not for the sake of building a work, but for the sake of building people.
Leadership like that requires a honed compassionate selflessness, and for some, that can take quite a bit of hard and complicated work indeed. Believe me, however, that it will be worth it.