Real life lessons in leadership come from real life experiences, not the theory of how life is experienced.
For those who seek to be a successful leader there is certainly no lack of leadership styles from which to choose – some good and some bad — and likewise, there is no lack of available advice that promises to teach you how to make the right choice. This counsel comes in all forms – books, speeches, seminars and even blogs – but the problem is that real leadership is not theoretical and cannot be learned from speeches or books.
The difficulty arises because leadership, particularly good leadership, is more of an abstract quality than a planned process. It is highly personal for both the leader and the follower. And it is this personal connection between the leader and the follower that is so difficult to quantify. What we do know is that leadership must be earned, and followership cannot be demanded. We also know that in the search for answers on how to become a strong, successful leader, many fail to realize that some of the best lessons come from understanding what others do wrong; in fact, this may be even more important than studying the traits of a successful leader. When it comes right down to it, leadership is best learned by observing, feeling and experiencing it – both as a leader and a follower.
Your First Clue Something is Wrong
If you ever worked for a boss whose most consistent attribute was inconsistency, then you have experienced firsthand the frustration of not knowing where you stand and learned an important lesson about lack of leadership. You’ve endured the angst that comes from receiving conflicting messages from the boss and resulting confusion that ensues as he or she unpredictably changes direction, setting one course and then changing with little or no notice.
And how about the boss who professes an inclusive, consensus-building philosophy, but exhibits the insecurity of micromanagement that creates nothing but resentment? If you have been on the receiving end of this brand of “leadership” (and if you haven’t, you will be) you know that this type of duplicitous leadership creates an environment of insecurity, distrust and lack of respect. It discourages commitment and erodes any semblance of loyalty.
Learning to be a Strong Leader
The problem is that inferior leaders don’t often write books confessing their weaknesses; so you are not going to learn that way. Conversely, successful leaders who do write books emphasize all they did right, not what they learned from being wrong. And in between you’ll find management schools that tend to emphasize theory, rather than reality. So what’s left? Well, the best way to learn the “dos and don’ts” of effective leadership is to observe – in real time – how public figures demonstrate their leadership style. And there has never been a better opportunity to do that than in this year’s presidential campaign.
By any reasonable measure Mitt Romney should, at this point in the campaign, be well ahead of President Obama. The perfect storm of economic stagnation, a paralyzed political process and Romney’s success as a businessman should all coalesce in Romney’s favor. And yet, by all appearances, his campaign is in disarray and foundering. Romney may still come back to win the election, but that is irrelevant. The irradiating benefit here is that valuable lessons in leadership are being played out right in front of us providing a great laboratory to observe leadership in inaction.
A number of rationalizations are being thrown up to explain why Romney can’t seem to gain traction with the voters. Things such as: A liberal media bias. The leaked “47 percent” video. The “distorted” polls. Even bigotry toward Romney’s Mormonism. Others suggest that the “real Romney” – the good person, the successful businessman, the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the role model family man — has not been allowed to emerge. But these are petty excuses for why Romney is lagging when he should be leading. The truth is that Romney is the reason why Romney is losing. Yes, the real Romney is intelligent, honest, a wonderful family man and successful businessman. But the Romney that is just as real is losing – right in front of us – because he is exhibiting all the traits of the type of leader we can’t relate to and hope we never have to. And that is something we can learn from.
Drilling Down to the Real Romney
All elements of effective leadership feed off consistency. Nothing frustrates followers more than the inconsistency of a leader. A leader with a constantly changing vision, message, objective and style soon causes followers to tire; then, rather than responding to the latest change, they do nothing and wait for the next change. There are too many examples of Romney’s inconsistency to mention here, but his approach to health care is an excellent compilation.
As Governor of Massachusetts Romney passionately fought for and achieved universal health care – including mandates and government participation – for all citizens. At the time, Romney enthusiastically claimed the state’s new health care plan was his signature achievement as governor. But then, as he began to campaign for president, for political expediency, he changed his position and began to oppose the same basic plan for the nation. During the nine months of the Republican primary season, all we heard from Romney on health care was the simple declaratory statement, “On my first day in office, I will repeal Obamacare.” Now, in the general election campaign against President Obama, Romney has changed his position again. Suddenly, Romney is embracing the mantle as the “grandfather of Obamacare.” He admitted on “Face The Nation” that he would not repeal Obamacare. (Although he did say it would be changed; but offered no specifics.) In interviews he unabashedly brags about the success of his Massachusetts health care plan; especially in covering children.
It makes no difference whether you favor universal health care or vehemently oppose Obamacare; you have to be frustrated by Romney’s leadership in this area. This is especially true for those on the political right who had seen Romney change positions in the past and didn’t quite trust him, but were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now they have nothing but proven doubts as to where he stands.
Another example of confusing leadership offered by Romney is the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. In many ways Ryan is the antithesis of Romney when it comes to leadership style. He is a clear ideologue who stakes out a position and clings to it. Ryan is the darling of the right and Romney played off this to send a message to the right that he truly is “one of them.” But no sooner had Ryan been selected when Romney began to back-off and disavow many of the positions that had established Ryan as a hero of the right. Romney made it clear that “I am the candidate” and the plans adopted would be those of Romney, not Ryan. Again, Romney’s inconsistent mixed message does nothing to engender passion or loyalty from followers.
There is No Iron in These Words of Leadership
There is another leadership lesson we can observe from Romney’s approach. As mentioned above, the type of boss that garners the least respect and the most contempt is one who professes an all-inclusive, transparent and open philosophy, but in action is exactly the opposite.
Imagine a boss who is always bragging-up to employees how important they are; how he wants to support them and provide empowerment and reward for their effort. But then the same boss is overheard telling the board of directors that the employees are not all that important and outlines plans to downsize employment, reduce benefits and outsource activities. How would the employees feel about and react to that type of leader? Of course, you know where we are going here: Romney is out on the stump professing his compassion and concern for people, how important they are, and the opportunity he will create for them. Then out comes a video of Romney telling wealthy donors that these people are really not his concern. Is there any wonder why the voters have reacted as negatively to this as they have?
What it all comes down to is that Romney is trailing in an election that he should easily win, because he has not exhibited traits of leadership that would generate trust, confidence and respect from those he seeks to lead. In fact, he has done just the opposite. Romney seems to be like the leader who, when given the choice, would rather be loved than respected; and, as a result, changes his position, depending on who he is talking to. In the end, he achieves neither love nor respect.
And the Moral of the Story …
Leadership is an art, not a science. Leadership is more about touch than technique; more about feel than form. While there are similarities among all successful leaders (as well as among failed leaders), when you come right down to it, leadership is as distinctive as a fingerprint. As a result, successful leaders must develop their own individual style. This can’t be learned from a book; but by observing or experiencing – in real time – how others approach leadership. In that way you can learn, accept or reject the style and approach that will be most effective in your efforts to be a successful leader.
Romney may still come back to win the election, but that is not relevant for this discussion. Taking the opportunity to observe how and learn from Romney’s practice of leadership will provide you with the opportunity to be the real winner.