Being a leader is not about you!

By Eddie A. Jones
AAC Consultant

No one can be a great leader unless they genuinely care about the success of those who work for them, those they work with and those they work for. The courthouses of Arkansas will be full of newly elected county officials that took office on January 1. When you were elected to office, you took on the mantel of leader whether you knew it or not — and whether you like it or not.

Adlai Stevenson, the 31st Vice President of the United States from 1953 to 1961, said, “It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”

You were elected, so quit thinking you “look funny on a horse” a.k.a. “not a leader” because you are now one of the county’s leaders.

The ultimate measure of leaders is their ability to help those around them become successful. It’s not about them helping you become successful; it’s about a selfless devotion to the people who work to help the county achieve its purpose and goals.

Your focus should be on developing your employees, helping them succeed, and watching them grow into the people they want to become. When your people are successful, it is a reflection of you as a leader. Being a leader is not about you.

Government has become so divisive in recent years, and it shouldn’t be that way. Elected officials have the power to make positive changes at all levels of government, if they are willing to work together. Big problems can be solved, if those elected to office master a few leadership skills.

What we need are great leaders stepping up to collaborate and find the common ground that will bring us the best solutions. We must overcome bias, engage in productive conflict and adopt a positive mindset. Let’s look at those three things — the big picture of leadership.

Overcome bias. Even though we may not know it by its real name of “confirmation bias,” we know it and it is alive and well. Confirmation bias occurs when you seek to confirm what you believe to such a degree that you miss anything that doesn’t align with what you believe.

The stereotypes given to political groups — such as liberal and conservative, bleeding hearts and ultra-conservative, left-wing and right-wing, zealot and nut job — lead us to overlook or ignore those who don’t fit into the stereotype we fit. We have a tendency to belittle those that don’t think or believe as we do. It takes self-awareness to recognize your bias, and then discipline to actively look for ways to work together. Checking bias at the door and looking for ways to connect with those in your courthouse and statehouse who don’t think or believe like you will lead to positive outcomes that will benefit your county.

Engage in conflict. That sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it? Try productive conflict. Conflict is not going away because we are all individuals, and we don’t all think alike. But conflict can be handled in a productive way. County government faces challenges. We always have, and I assume we always will.

I believe working together toward a common goal, like solving these challenges, doesn’t require common beliefs, but it does require an open mind. Productive conflict is all about finding better solutions and working together as a team with an open mind. The best decisions come when you bring all possible points of view to the table.

What we need is a political environment in which it is possible to raise and discuss points of view and issues without offending or alienating one another and having a clear and honest discussion of all perspectives. That’s what we need at all levels of government. Listening to understand, rather than to defend your position; that’s what it takes to engage in productive conflict.

I remember the day when alignment was possible because elected officials sought to understand different points of view and then partner together to find the best solutions. I don’t know a single person who is smart enough to know it all or solve all problems with only their ideas.

Adopt a positive mindset. How you think matters. If you don’t have the right mindset, you will never make important things happen, and distrust will close the door on the free thinking that leads to the best solutions. Identify your mindset — is it negative or positive? Your thoughts impact your actions, and how you act is contagious. It is important for our elected officials to adopt a powerful positive mindset.

The negativity we see today catches like wildfire. Our elected officials can lead the change. Choosing to believe that change is possible and trusting in positive intentions can ignite fresh solutions to the stubborn problems we face locally, statewide and nationally.

I believe there is hope for our counties, our state and our nation. And what we need is great leaders stepping up to collaborate and find the common ground that will bring us the best solutions.

But just what is leadership? At the most basic level, we need to distinguish between dominance and leadership. In some groups, a dominant individual will seize power and assert control. This is the world of animal herds, authoritarian dictatorships, and mafia families. While these situations make for great television, dominance is not leadership. We should focus more on the nature of leadership as a relationship — an honor that is bestowed upon a person by followers who are willing to place their trust in them. Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States from 1953-1961 said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head; that’s assault, not leadership.”

The key question becomes what are the qualities in a person that cause others to trust him or her with leadership? A simple model captures three key traits people require in order to bestow the mantle of leadership on someone.

  • First, people look for integrity — confidence that a person will do the right thing, with the best interest of those they serve in mind. As a practical matter, this integrity is embodied in the leader’s behavior. Leaders with integrity are comfortable adding people more talented than themselves to the team. And when things go wrong, they take responsibility, rather than throwing subordinates under the bus or blaming failure on unforeseeable events. Make no mistake: leadership is an honor that often requires sacrifice.
  • Second, people look for competence — a leader must have the skill to assess a situation and make the sequence of decisions and take the actions required to ensure survival and the achievement of goals. A competent leader is one who can perform under pressure, is resilient when adversely surprised and has the grit and persistence to overcome obstacles. Also, under the banner of competence, a leader must strike an appropriate balance between the optimism needed to inspire their team and the hubris and overconfidence that leads to failure.
  • And third, a leader must have empathy for the people who have entrusted him or her with the leadership. Leaders authentically care about their people. You can’t fake this; people are endowed with a strong ability to tell the difference between leaders who are authentic and leaders who are putting on an act. For example, leaders with empathy don’t hesitate to liberally share credit for their team’s success. And while they praise in public, they only criticize in private and only do so when they can provide constructive coaching and advice.

You may be thinking that there is still something missing from this description of leadership — and I agree. There is one other element, and it is critical.

One of the few things we leave behind is the impact of our actions. When you are on your deathbed, looking back on your life, actions that serve no higher purpose than maximizing your own wealth and pleasure will look painfully small and insignificant. Many people know this and either explicitly or intuitively want to be part of a collective purpose that is larger than their own pleasure; something that gives meaning to their lives and the passage of time. This is the last aspect of leadership: the ability to define a noble purpose for a group, and to give meaning to every individual’s effort.

I saw something posted on LinkedIn recently about the bosses we remember. The bosses we remember:

  • Provided us a safe place to grow;
  • Opened career doors;
  • Defended us when we needed it;
  • Recognized and rewarded us;
  • Developed us as leaders;
  • Inspired us to stretch higher;
  • Led by example;
  • Told us our work mattered; and
  • Forgave us when we made mistakes.

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by your ability to influence. I urge all elected county officials, especially those that are just starting the journey, to be a real leader. Remember, “delegating work works, provided the one delegating works, too.”

Being a leader is not about you. Become the kind of leader who people would follow voluntarily, even if you had no title or position.

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