True leadership comes from below, not from above

In business and politics, we most often act as part of a group. Understanding group dynamics and its relationship to leadership is a topic very much on my mind these days. Let me explain why. 

As an innovation expert and educator, I spend a lot of time working with groups and teaching group behavior. I have found certain consistent behaviors among the hundreds of groups I have instructed or worked with over the years. 

In the United States, when a group does not have a person designated as leader by virtue of title or position, group members have a very strong bias towards adopting majority rule as their decision-making paradigm. I consistently see this regardless of the group members’ age, income, education or other demographic attributes. Absent a clear leader, group members most often consult with each other and then assemble a majority vote to support a decision. 

Interestingly, while groups are driven to find common ground and make decisions through majority rule, they are also very willing to be led. But only if they are comfortable with who leads them. Left to their own to act, groups find their leaders through questioning or conduct to identify special expertise, a job title that carries authority, or other indicia of authority. Then, they follow the leaders they choose. 

Understanding the contradictory impulses of majority rule and a willingness to be led is essential for effective leadership. The grant of leadership is always contingent. Groups may be willing to be led, but only if the leaders consistently demonstrate that they are competent to lead, that their decision making is sound and that they give credence to the opinions of those whom they lead. 

What happens when a leader proves not to be worthy of continued leadership? Groups and their members become frustrated and look to reassert their power to decide. And if the leader does not cede authority back to the group or to a leader the group prefers, the group gets more frustrated.   

I’m sure you’ve experienced this group dynamic for yourself. Perhaps it was when a boss gave a poorly qualified relative a management job over more qualified non-family members. Or, when a team is adversely affected by a team captain that doesn’t challenge management or the refs on behalf of the players. It could have been when a chief executive turns out to be sexually harassing employees, while espousing a corporate culture of inclusion. In each case, there was a group that experienced the delegation of authority and the frustration and anger that followed when the leader proved unworthy of following.  

Everyone knows that his or her opinion matters. Every group expects deference and acknowledgement from its leaders.   

This is something every business leader must understand to be successful. The best business leaders take the time to remain in touch with their employees through 360-degree reviews, strategic planning, organization retreats, employee training and development and many other means. Indeed, the entirety of best practices in management and leadership rests on understanding the needs of the group and on individuals participating in forming the group consensus. 

Which brings me to the world of politics and policy. Too many political leaders seem to have forgotten that they owe their leadership roles to the individuals and groups that delegated authority to them. They no longer treat them as if their opinions matter. A business leader that ignores the well-being of his employees would surely be fired. Why shouldn’t political leaders be evaluated by the same standard?    

Don’t let the noise of current events confuse or dissuade you. Leadership is not taken. It is earned. No one should be a leader without honoring that fundamental truth. What is true in business should also be true for politics.  

 

 

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