First Among Equals – is that leadership? The term “leadership” has become a very confusing and over-used word. It finds its way into all kinds of places, for all different types of reasons, by a vast array of enthusiasts. Ultimately the term leadership becomes very commonplace and baffling.
I have always found the term leadership straightforward.
Leadership starts with you – your ability to manage yourself. The action part about leadership is how you behave with your team. And the driving part of leadership is about and within your company.
Within those three buckets is a vast array of concepts – discussed, dissected and/or dissed.
Each time I hear someone proclaim, ‘servant leadership,’ ice-cold shivers wiggle down my spine. Why? Because servant leadership is wishy-washy.
The concept of servant leadership rose in the dwindling days of the industrial age. It was a different take on how to lead teams. Perfect for when too many factory leaders needed to get off the dictator path and onto the people path. Imperfect for the modern industrial remnants and not fitting for the information age in which we now live.
I believe that no leader should be so full of ego that leading for his/her own sake is the norm. (Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely). Furthermore, no human being wants to be in a servant position or to be served. (Polite niceties to family and friends aside).
Absolutely everyone is accountable to someone. Even those less than perfect leaders are accountable to at least one level above. Even the CEO is responsible to a board of directors, customers, and even vendors.
This whole business of ‘serving’ is like trying to smear gobs of paint in a perfectly straight line. Serving means the Leader is in it for either the good of himself OR the good of her team. I must confess NO self-respecting LEADER ever makes that kind of binary choice.
In my experience, the kind of Leader most humans enjoy, respect, revere and gladly follow is generally because he/she believes in the impact for which the organisation is striving. (I refer to this as the dream. Sometimes it is referred to as the vision or the goal). And said Leader sets out to accomplish his/her part within the whole symphony of responsibilities. He/she does this by giving everything possible of himself/herself in the pursuit of that dream.
The Leader accomplishes all this by bringing out the best in the team members. How this gets achieved is he/she pays attention to every single person on the team. He/she LISTENS to every single person. He/she works hard to mesh at least 40% of what the team member personally wants out of the experience with what the organisation wants to bring to fruition.
By trying to meet the team members’ wants, he/she automatically infuses the working relationship with meaning. And team members who understand the big picture, their part in making it big and how their experience propels their personal goals forward are the best. Every solid Leader knows this combination pushes the results or outcomes to exceed the dream by at least 10%.
The Leader sees all the members of the team as equals. Equals in the sense that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Equal in the sense that gender, race, and religion are never crucial in any discussion. Equal in the sense that every single person has a level of competence and brilliance that should be displayed or shown at the appropriate moment. Equal in the sense that no member on the team outranks, out seniors, out machos or even outshines anyone else. Equal in the sense that all feedback is regular and explicit – around the furtherance of the dream and the goal. Equal in the sense that everyone can perform better and more exact in the pursuit of that dream.
The Leader is always consistent. Consistently compassionate, consistently on watch, consistently on message, consistently firm. Consistency eliminates the need for rank and privileges.
The one defining and essential thing that ONLY the Leader does is make the final decision. After soliciting everyone’s opinion, after listening to everyone’s observations, after studying the final analysis and fact patterns, and after injecting his/her experience into the midst, he/she arrives at the best decision to further the dream.
And here is the nub. We all need to know where the buck stops. And the buck always stops with the person in charge. And the Leader of the team is the person in charge.
In every other way, except for making that final decision, the Team Leader is equal to his/her team members. ONLY in making the last call, the end decision, the ultimate argument, is the most respected Leader held separate from the rest of the team. And that is the reason I call any solid Leader – First Among Equals.
This leaves little doubt in the mind of the team members, the Leader, and the higher-ups (whoever or whatever that might be) that when things veer off the rails, the First Among Equals is the one who allowed it to deviate. This leaves little doubt in the mind of all concerned that when there is a success, that success came because of the entire team, not one person. This leaves little doubt that everyone’s focus is on firming the dream’s foundation, fulfilling the dream, moving the dream to heights never contemplated.
It is the only way that allows everyone space to speak up and speak out. And it is the only way to exercise the most intense pressure available to any of us. PEER pressure. Because none of us will ever let a teammate down, will we? All of us will sacrifice for the greater good when we know that everyone is in it together.
So, forgive me when I say servant leadership is too wishy-washy. The most formidable leaders I have ever had the privilege of working with and against whom I benchmarked my performance standards were First among Equals. Those were the ones for whom I would cheerfully take a bullet. Those were the ones with whom I stayed forever in contact.
What is your experience?