Why did you want to be a leader?

Glyptoteket, Copenhagen

by C. Villefrance Moeller, TalesOfLeading

I have curiously asked some of my friends this question. One of them gave me his story:

“Initially I chose to be a leader because I was disappointed with the leader I had. He wasn’t competent and had no empathy for us his subordinates. I had the opportunity to replace him during his vacation and I didn’t look back. I wanted to make the best of it improving quality, employee satisfaction and economy. I succeeded.”

This is one example of motivation for choosing the responsibility of being a manager. I have heard other motivations as: “I want to develop people”, “I want to make decisions” or “results and success motivates me”. These motives can all be adequate answers considered the assigned task. You might see a need for a change and believe you know how to do it. Just like my friend did. He was recognized for his results by the management and his colleagues and was rewarded by trust. They authorized (Hirschhorn 1998) him to take over the position and follow him.

Step out and get followers

As leader you step out in front of others to guide them accomplish a task. When you chose to take  responsibility and become a leader you get the opportunity to make decisions. Simultaneously it’s an obligation to the team you expect to follow (Gabriel &Hirschhorn 1999) you and the decisions you make. How you manage this responsibility and what you use it for is up to you. This leads to my next question: What was the the first thing you did, when you were appointed leader? For me personally it has always been my first priority to establish a structure for objectives, meetings and plans. I wanted to make sure that the team new the task and what was expected from them. The purpose of the meeting was to gain a common understanding of what we had to do how we wanted to do it.

The fear of not succeeding

Now try to take to position as my friends leader. What feelings emerge in you? I would be furious and feel let down by people I trusted. You take a vacation and returns to a completely new situation. I could also feel relieved if I felt that I had lost breath of view. There will be a pressure from within the team to challenge your leadership and stop following if they lose faith in you. In the past I have been the defiant team member and as a leader I have been challenged by a subordinate. In both cases I felt uncomfortable and feared the consequences. I really do want to be a good leader, but I’m not perfect and I don’t expect others to be perfect. To contain the fear and connect with my team (Binney, Williams and Wilke 2012) I have chosen to be open about who I am and invite the team to put forward their suggestions.

Holding out the pressure

Even though you have gained trust and authorization in the first place you are expected to continue carry out the work today and make sure it is done even better tomorrow. This pressure is very evident in start-up companies. These entrepreneurs start out enthusiastically with an idea and take leadership in transforming this idea into a profitable business. I recently saw the movie Printing the legend. It was striking how these young men and women struggle to lead their friends and co-workers through the forming of a business and not seeing themselves as managers responsible for the subordinates. I believe they do their best to holding out the pressure and deliver the expected success. In contrast to this a more experienced entrepreneur Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovation states:

“I believe it has to start with leadership… One of my biggest jobs is to “systematically pump fear out of the room.” Because if we can pump enough fear out of the room… (the fear many of us learn during our managerial mentorship [years] where we learn to motivate with fear)… people feel safe. If they feel safe, they begin to trust one another, they begin to collaborate… then you start getting the things everybody wants from a learning organization: creativity, innovation, invention, imagination, human energy…”

This lead me to the last questions in this blog: What does it give you to be a leader? Was it really what you expected?

Share your reflections

I would like to have your help to explore the basics about leading. So, please share your reflections:

  • Why did you want to be a leader?
  • What was the the first thing you did, when you were appointed leader?
  • What does it give you to be a leader?

Binney, George, Williams, Colin og Wilke, Gerhard (2012): “Living Leadership – A Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes”. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited   

Gabriel, Yiannis & Hirschhorn, Larry (1999): ”Leaders and Followers”. I: Yiannis Gabriel: Organizations in Deph. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publ.

Hirschhorn, Larry (1998): “Reworking Authority: leading and following in the post-modern organization”. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 

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