VIEWPOINT: ‘Leadership’ is an overused term, too often used as a lazy catchall. Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, calls for a focus on what it means to be a real leader, in this ninth in his series of articles for IEDP: Four-letter words are no-no’s and often none seems to come much bigger than the simple, single syllable statement LEAD. For instance, attach the “L” word to practically anything and you instil in it some kind of supernatural power. “He’s a business leader” is expressed in hushed tones as though we should all be impressed. “Sign up for our seminar on business Leadership and you’ll never look back” is a frequent favourite, hinting at practically guaranteed success. It seems to me that in today’s world the word LEAD is being used in a LAZY way. Users, it would seem, reckon that that the simple evocation of the “L” word conveys mystical powers (allowing those that use it to charge a good 50 percent premium on the services they are offering).
Consequently every consultant manages to work the L-word into their product and services. Therefore, it is not surprising that practically every conference, seminar book and research project is based on the thoughts of business leaders which will give you the magical insight to being a real Leader yourself. But isn’t it time we stopped over-using leadership as an all-purpose, over-contrived superlative - an unnecessary and distracting adjectival device? Come on think about it please.
Sure we know that most of us would rather be seen as leaders, but surely we have to earn it and be recognised for our abilities before it can be applied to us mere mortals. Calling ourselves a leader does not really work if no-one believes, or has day-to-day confidence, in our talents and abilities. Certainly, we can all read the right books attend the best programs and employ the best coaches, but none of that will make us a leader not for one nano-second.
There is a very old saying that you can fool most of the people most of the time. But you just can’t fool your people by proclaiming you are a leader when you are not. All the certificates in the world won’t be of any use when you are in charge and another “L” word appears in you working vocabulary – a- LONE; because that is where you will be -on your own. And that is when we all get to find out how good we really are.
Also there is another old adage that suggests that you can get away with not being a very good leader as a Number 2 but never as a Number 1. You can fake it , practically forever, as number 2 but take it from me - and the many examples I’ve seen time and time again - if you have faked it, if you are not really what it says on the box, you will LOSE – big time. Because, I can guarantee that circumstances will always conspire to make sure you meet that other “word and LOSE. I have been around the business a long time and I have never seen a fake Number 2 ever succeed as a successful Number 1 – it just does not happen, and I don’t think it ever will.
So, yes, I do think the word LEAD and its bigger brother Leadership is overused and badly misunderstood. I think we spray the “L” word around without much thought. But tell you what. When it all happens one day, you will personally know (deep inside) if you are really a leader or not. And, more important, your people will know that too right from day one– oh yes, indeed they will!! I have been scanning the world’s media and it is amazing how many just do not make it. And all too often they may get to Lead for a while but they don’t last LONG either. In our dumbing- down on LEAD as a word we have managed to reduce the average CEO tenure to less than five years- so much for another Word victim –LONG evity !
But there is even more of a twist to this when you bother to stop and think about it. What worries me most of all is that we could end-up mistaking that simple, yet highly evocative word Lead for the similarly spelt LEAD. Otherwise known as a very heavy metal……. Chances are you get it all terribly wrong and the people you have come to lead will - if you don’t have it… sink out of sight like a lead balloon……. In the Periodic Table of corporate life LEAD is most certainly a downer, not what naturally springs to mind when we think of ourselves as all conquering heroes saving the organizational universe.
This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here