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To Be A Successful Leader Followers Must Believe …

A crucial component of successful leadership is that followers believe in the leader and what the leader is about.

Authority gives a boss the power to direct the actions of others, but it is a belief system that gives a leader the power to inspire the actions of others. Belief in a leader happens when followers believe the leader can be trusted, is intent on doing the right thing and will always take the best interests of the followers into account. When followers believe in the leader it becomes the oxygen of leadership and without it, leadership is suffocated. Belief in a leader becomes a license to lead and it coalesces individuals into a coordinated effort to support the leader’s goals.

Case in point. Do you remember the two campaign mantras of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign? Change You Can Believe In and Yes ObamaWe Can. It can be argued that these were nothing more than empty slogans, but they did touch a nerve that is at the very core of leadership. The reality is that humans universally not only want to believe in something or someone, they need to. Anyone can exist in life, but it is a belief in something bigger that gives life value and meaning. Earning the deep belief of followers is what gives a leader the power to motivate people to do what others only dream of doing or think not possible. And in this instance, the belief created was so powerful it propelled a virtually unknown young leader to the very pinnacle of power.

Another good illustration of the power inherent in believing is religion. Believing is essential to any religion. It is not possible to quantifiably prove the existence of God, so one must have faith and believe. Yet, it is believing in the very presence of God that allows followers to faithfully accept and abide by religious teachings that may in a world of logic seem improbable. That kind of belief is encapsulated nicely in the Bible:  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Creating this same sense of believing is just as important to the effectiveness of secular leadership. It is the responsibility of a leader to give followers a reason to follow. A leader gives others a reason to follow when they build a deep, abiding belief among followers that they will always act in the ultimate best interests of the followers. When followers believe in a leader, they believe they can do anything and they will make the effort to do so.

Elections are another wonderful example of how the power of believing can override almost any other factor of leadership. Campaigns are often a cacophony of confusion, wild promises and vicious attacks that make it difficult to decide and cast a rational vote. In the end, more often than not, the vote for a leader comes down to who the voter believes in the most. In 2012 all logic suggested that Mitt Romney would defeat Barack Obama. The economy was still sputtering, terrorism was a continuing and spreading threat, foreign policy was constricted and confusing and, maybe most important of all, Obama’s promise of “change you can believe in” had failed to materialize. So what happened? Post-election analysis revealed that the undecided voter – those that swung the election for Obama – simply did not believe in Romney. Even though Obama had failed to deliver on promises made in 2008, the majority of voters decided they could still believe in him more than they could in Romney.

Becoming The Leader They Can Believe In

Becoming a leader who others will believe in cannot be mandated. It must be cultivated and earned based on attitudes and actions that are established over time, not overnight. Remember, the objective is to give the followers a reason to believe.

If you seek to be a leader who followers will believe in, here are a few things (not necessarily in order of priority) to incorporate into your approach to leadership:

  • Demonstrate that you believe in the abilities and talent of the followers, even more than you want them to believe in you.
  • Be consistent in how you lead. Be the same leader tomorrow as you are today and were yesterday.
  • Create, communicate and adhere to a clearly articulated vision of what you seek to accomplish.
  • Align followers in parallel with your interests and objectives by allowing them to share in the rewards of success.
  • Empower your followers to participate in the process in a way that enables them to believe that their efforts can make a difference.
  • Establish standards of performance and accountability for you and the followers and enforce them consistently and fairly.
  • Always search out the right thing to do and always do it in the best interests of those who follow.
  • Unfailingly communicate with followers as you would wish to be communicated with as a follower.
  • Always say what you mean and mean what you say. Followers will never believe in what or who they can’t trust to be honest and consistent.
  • As a leader, never promise followers more than you can deliver and always deliver more than you promise. (One of the reasons so few believe in politicians.)
  • Passionately and unfailingly believe in yourself and what you are about. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?

It’s More Like A Religion

One of the highest compliments a leader can receive is when others refer to the culture created by the leader as “more like a religion.” Then there is the more (maybe jealous) pejorative comment offered by some that the followers “drank the Kool-Aid” served up by the leader. Be that as it may, such comments are to be sought out by a leader, because it means that followers are true believers and that is what real leadership is about.

A Parody can be Really Humorous Unless it’s Really Serious

Now that Republicans are in full control of Congress, they have an opportunity to exhibit strong, constructive leadership.  Instead, the Republican leaders have chosen to make a parody of leadership.

A parody is deliberate, exaggerated imitation of the particular way someone does something that is calculated to produce a comic result. What makes a parody humorous is mocking, mimicking and overplaying the noticeable aspects of a certain situation or activity.

The Tina Fey portrayal of Gov. Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live is a classic case of parody. And if the Feyissues facing the country were not so important, the actions of the Republican leaders in Congress would serve as a humorous parody of leadership that might be seen on Saturday Night Live or The Comedy Channel.

It seems too easy and almost cruel and unusual punishment to pick on Republican Congressional leaders for their absence of any ability to exhibit even a modicum of positive, productive leadership. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel; chastising Republican leaders for a famine of leadership is like going on an elephant hunting safari in Africa and discovering all the elephants shackled by chains.

Now before you climb up on your high horse and ride off in a huff thinking this is an attack piece on Republicans in general, it’s not. Rather, this blog is intended to be a lesson in leadership – good or bad – that we can all learn from. Often we can learn just as much – if not more – from what people do wrong as we can from what they do right. This is a case where Republican leaders are showing us what leadership is by doing just the opposite of what leaders should do.

Getting Leadership Right from the Start

There is little political divide or argument over the fundamental essence of effective leadership. Without a clear vision of what needs to be done to solve problems or to move forward, leadership cannot exist. Leadership is about proposing, not opposing.

That does not mean there can’t be honest debate and disagreement over what should be done or even how it is done, but it should be conducted in an environment that seeks a solution, not a stalemate. Nor is leadership an individual sport. It calls for honesty, openness, collaboration, and compromise. Most important of all, it demands a commitment to achieve the vision—no matter who gets the credit.

Imagine yourself serving as chairman of a committee charged with solving a vexing problem. But every time you demonstrate your leadership by offering a proposal to solve the problem, a majority of the committee opposes it – and rejects it out of hand. No matter what solution you offer – even ideas that the majority had previously endorsed – the majority of the committee rejects it.

When you ask this group to offer their own ideas for a solution, their response is silence, except to reiterate their opposition to anything you propose and criticize you as a weak leader for the failure to solve the problem. How frustrated would you feel? Would the committee produce any constructive results?

Now with the mandate from the voters to provide leadership, the problem for the Republican leaders is that they have been in such a hardened opposition mode for so long, that any leadership ability has fossilized to the extent that they have become incapable of providing any new or constructive ideas.

A Case in Point

The current stalemate over the funding of the Homeland Security Department (HSD) is a telling example of the GOP’s policy of deliberately impeding good lawmaking. The Republicans have attached an outlier in the bill rescinding President Obama’s Executive Order on immigration. Now tell me: Is it good leadership for the Republicans to put themselves in a position to be blamed for failure to fund HSD, especially in these times, simply because they are at odds with Obama on immigration? The Republicans know they can’t win this battle, either with votes or public opinion, yet they press forward and hold HSD hostage. That is a clear example of obstructionism, not leadership.

Maybe the Republicans forget they are in full control of Congress. If they are hell-bent on reversing Obama’s executive order on immigration they could pass HSD funding (sans immigration) on one day and bring up immigration for full debate the next day. The problem is that the Republican leaders are mired in the politics of opposition, not focused on vision and leadership. The truth is that the only idea Republican leaders have put forward on immigration was Mitt Romney’s suggestion of “self-deportation.”

(As a side note: Do you know what Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Truman’s order to desegregate the army had in common with Obama’s action on immigration? They were all executive orders issued because Congress failed to act.)

The Republicans vociferously opposed Obamacare and since its passage the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted 57 times to repeal it. Obamacare may be a poor solution to the health care issues in the country, but what alternative have the Republicans offered? The Republicans have opposed, but they have never once proposed a single alternative idea. Not even one suggestion as to how to improve it; just total and complete opposition. Let me repeat: Leadership is about proposing, not opposing.

The Republican leaders are now attempting to take up the mantle of protectors-of-the-middle class, lamenting the issues of stagnant wages, job flight and wealth disparity. That is a good thing; these are important problems that need to be addressed and resolved. Unfortunately, but true to their pledge to oppose anything and everything, the Republican approach to improving the plight of the middle class is to blame Obama for causing the problem. This is like the drunk driver who veers across the road and causes a horrible accident, and then blames the other driver for being on the road.

In fairness to the Republican leaders, they have had a vision for the past six years. In the same week that President Obama was inaugurated, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Is it just me or when you Doody_McConnellsee a picture of McConnell, doesn’t he look like an aged Howdy Doody?) told a group or Republican leaders that their number one objective would be to oppose anything and everything that Obama would propose. At least give the Republican leaders credit for sticking to this pledge, but by no stretch of the imagination could that be called leadership.

It would be of immense value to the Republican Party – not to mention the country – if its leaders could discover and practice the art of real leadership. But doing so won’t be easy, because when one has for so long made a parody of leadership, it is difficult to be taken seriously.

This is a good lesson for all of us who profess a desire to be leaders. Remember, leadership is about creating a vision and then offering a plan to achieve it. If one seeks to be a successful leader they have to understand that it will require sacrifice and compromise; it will demand a willingness to be open to the ideas of others and an understanding that success is more likely when all work together to achieve the objective. A leader has to understand that it is not their way or no way, but that any way that achieves the vision is the right way.

The Republican leaders have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that they can be real leaders. They have the stage to show that they have the best ideas to confront the challenges facing America. Until Republican leaders understand and accept that in order to demonstrate their leadership prowess, they have to have the creativity and courage to step up and propose something – anything – they will rightly be viewed as no more than a parody of leadership. And that’s not funny.

Stepping Up to Successful Leadership Calls for Many Small Steps

Leadership is not about one giant leap, but about a lot of small steps that add up to a big success.

We’ve been raised and socialized on time-honored images of leadership. The standard-bearer of leadership is depicted as one who is out front or highly visible. We are conditioned to believe that the best leadership is provided when the leader is in the limelight, the clear focus of attention and attraction. Museums are chockablock with portraits that depict this quintessential view of leadership. You know, The Gallant Crusader with flapping flag in hand astride the supersized charger – rising above the chaos to lead his followers to vanquish the evil marauding mongrels.

The traditional images of the leader are often based on a single, dramatic event. The mention of Teddy Roosevelt evokes visions of his bravery while leading the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. Think of Bonaparte atop his white Mythsteed on his way to glory at St. Bernard Pass. George Washington’s leadership is often depicted by him (foolishly) standing up in a leaky rowboat, leading his army across the Delaware River to attack the Hessians (German mercenary soldiers hired by the British) in the middle of winter. There is the World War II visual image of Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading ashore (it took four takes to get it right) in the Philippines as if he were the first one to confront and frighten off the Japanese.

I could go on and on with these time-honored examples of what leadership is purported to be, but why? The fact is, at best these are archaic myths of leadership, not the reality of what leadership is really about. Real leadership is acchieved» by following a much more mundane approach. And when leadership is exercised in this manner, it is much more effective and lasting, especially in today’s world.

Certainly one cannot be a leader if there are no followers. But attracting those who will follow cannot be mandated; that kind of dedication must be earned over time. In simple terms, leaders must give followers a reason to follow. An effective and successful leader approaches this task by adopting five specific steps: Teacher, coach, taskmaster, cheer leader and fan.

Teaching » When Franklin Roosevelt was trying to lead America out of its greatest economic crisis by changing the Rooseveltfundamental nature of how government functioned, he conducted a series of radio “Fireside Chats.” In doing so, he went directly to Americans (those he wanted to follow him) to explain in simple, down-to-earth terms they could understand the essence of the economic crisis and made clear his vision for solving it. By “teaching” the American public to understand the reasons for his actions and to explain his vision, he made them feel part of the process. This approach coalesced the power and support of the followers in a way that allowed him to overcome stiff opposition to his plans. In reality, to be effective, leaders must learn to teach before they lead.

Coaching » Winning coaches in any sport don’t just tell their players what they want – they show them. A football coach does not pass out diagrams of plays he wants run, and then leave it to the team to flesh them out. The coach will lead the team through the plays, making them practice and practice till they are run effectively. During the decisive Battle of the Bulge during World War II, General Patton was able to accomplish what no other general thought possible. He was able to pivot three divisions consisting of thousands of soldiers and mechanized armor and move them over 100 miles in less than two days, to thwart and defeat the German offensive. How was Patton’s army able to carry out this seemingly impossible maneuver? He had coached and practiced the very same movement when his army was training in the desert of California. Effective leaders don’t tell followers what to do, they coach them to victory.

Taskmaster » There is a negative connotation to the term “taskmaster.” (Taskmaster was the super-villain and antihero to the Avengers in Marvel Comics.) Generally a boss who imposes an unfair burden and work on others is tagged with the “taskmaster” moniker. But being a taskmaster as a leader can be very effective in achieving an objective—so long as the actions are fair and equitable. What a leader does as a taskmaster is demand and enforce accountability in order to successfully complete a task. When followers understand they will be held accountable – both in terms responsibility and reward – they are much more inclined to focus on the effort assigned by the leader.

Cheerleader » The effective leader is always there offering support and encouragement for the followers’ efforts. The leader is there to reassure the followers when times are difficult and to applaud their efforts as they move forward. Most people seek – indeed crave – recognition, support and approval for the efforts they are making. Nothing is more motivating for a follower to do more than to know that their leader is cheering for them, recognizing, appreciating and supporting their efforts.

Fan » Few things make people feel better than to know they have fans pulling for and committed to their success. An important role for an effective leader is to be a fan of their followers. True leaders become fans when they are involved with the efforts of the followers, show respect for the value they are adding and share the successful outcome with their followers. The best way for leaders to motivate others to follow is to be boisterous fan of the efforts and accomplishments of the followers.

Seeking success as a leader starts with breaking from the myth that leadership is defined by out-front flamboyance and the search for personal glory. Instead, put the mission and the people out front and make them the focus. Real leaders spotlight what is to be accomplished and the efforts of those who will accomplish it, not how accomplished the leader may be.

And the Moral of the Story …

The leader as a “demigod” out front and hell-bent-for-leather may have been an effective image in the past, but leadership in today’s world calls for a different approach. Leadership in the modern world boils down to understanding that the best leaders lead best when they appear to follow.

Genuine leadership has never been exhibited by a single, dramatic episode but rather an intricate series of actions and events that fuse the followers into a dynamic and focused force that is targeted to achieve the objectives of the leader – because the actions of the leader have encouraged them to adopt the objectives as their own. An effective leader teaches, coaches, demands accountability, cheers for the success of others and is an abiding fan of those they seek as followers.