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The Hidden Leader

The subtitle I had in mind for this blog was ‘how to lead without being seen as a tyrant'. Because we've all been there, in the driving seat with maybe too much power under our feet. And ultimately, the exercise of power for power's sake becomes an inhibiting force. It's a brake stopping us from getting the best from our teams.

Good leadership is about loyalty, it's about inspiration and it's about blurring the boundaries between the idea of a ‘leader' and a ‘ruler'. Bottom line: your team has to want to work for you, or it won't. At least not past a certain point. The desire to help your leader is a key motivating factor, capable of exercising a much stronger pull than the need to benefit your organisation.

We're all more disposed to help out a person than a company. It's how we're built. We like things with faces. As a leader, it's our job to be that face, but we have to know where to draw the line. Leaders lead through example and vision. But they can't be too friendly with the team, or the respect necessary to command the troops is lost.

In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) has this to say on the subject of leadership:

‘I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.'

There's a lot to get hold of in this, all of it good leadership advice. Leaders inspire confidence. They are the person to whom a team member naturally turns when he or she has an issue. To do this, they must be human, one of the boys and girls. But they must also be invincible. Leaders don't have issues, at least not in the presence of the people they lead - because if they did, that confidence would evaporate.

Captain Miller's description of leadership is familiar to plenty of people who have never been to war. Because it's also a description of a kind of person we have all known. The best leaders - and the worst - are our parents. And they are us, when we become parents. All the good qualities of leadership, and all the mistakes made in leadership positions, are there in the relationship between the influential figures in a child's life, and the child herself.

Consider this. According to the OED, leadership is the ‘action of leading a group of people or organization, or the ability to do this'. A ruler, on the other hand, is someone ‘exercising government or dominion'. Try dominating a child, and you'll get poor responses: sullen, moody, intractable, argumentative or repressed and fearful. But if you can find a way to lead a child, you stand a good chance of creating a person who wants to help. Someone who knows the boundaries. A person who trusts that you will solve her problems, and who believes you to be stronger than you really are.

Leadership advice often wanders into the terminology of strength and weakness. All too often, though, a would-be leader becomes a tyrant by confusing the idea of strength with the habit of intractability. Yes, that's right. They begin to take on the same unhelpful traits displayed by the sulky child. There is no help from this kind of leader - and ultimately there is no productivity from his team.

Leaders don't order. They make requests. But these requests are known to be non-negotiable. In other words, they're orders, but they're polite ones. They make the privates in an organisation feel they are acknowledged as equal, by a captain who they respect as being superior. And that's the real trick of leadership. The captain makes his privates forget his stripes, but they always defer to them anyway. This is how Captain Miller can inspire a group of men to trek across war-torn France in search of someone they'll probably die trying to save. I'll leave the last words in the hands of the 2nd Ranger Battalion:

PVT REIBEN I'm sorry, sir, but uh… let's say you weren't a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

CAPT MILLER Well, in that case, I'd say: ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover… I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men - especially you, Reiben - to ease her suffering.'

MELLISH He's good.

PVT CAPARZO I love him.

And they do.

Written by Jim Alexander

07th Friday August 2015