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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Strength Isn’t Leadership. Believing It Is Often Leads to Failure.

We often make the mistake of seeing “strength” as leadership. Strength, in this case, means a set of behaviors including decisiveness, outward confidence, order-giving, narrow expectations, strict punishments and rewards, and immediate reactions to events. We imagine that these behaviors show a person knows what he or she is doing, that inside his or her head is a plan which says exactly what must happen next.

We make these behaviors for leadership because human beings want clarity. We all have doubts about ourselves and our actions: “Are they right? Are they productive? Do others approve?” As members of a group (“followers”, though that term isn’t really useful or accurate), this kind of strength appears to be clarity. We want to know that we are doing the right thing, that our actions are exactly what is required. And when a person satisfies this very human need, we believe that he or she is a good leader.

But what if the decisions being made aren’t the right ones? What if the order being given does not bring out the best in each member, but rather divides the group and minimizes individuals’ effectiveness? What if this strength, rather than making the group perform with excellence, in fact limits the group to mediocrity and even failure? What if the immediate reaction isn’t as effective as a more considered change to processes and interpersonal connections? What if the plan we imagine inside the leader’s head isn’t accurate, or isn’t there at all?

These demonstrations of strength can feel reassuring, but successful leadership isn’t how members feel, it is what the group achieves. In practical application and organizational research, outward displays of strength are often exactly the opposite of a plan: they are ways that individuals cover up their lack of a plan. Excessive confidence is a reaction to self-doubt.

Mistaking strength for leadership is one of the consequences of a poor definition of leadership. Fortunately, the functional approach to leadership allows us to understand the needs of a successful group and the role of leadership to meet these needs. So what should we look for a leader? The indicators of leadership are behaviors that create the three functions within a group. Let’s take each function in turn. Each section has a few questions you might ask in conversation or an interview to explore an individual’s effect on each function.

First, leadership requires clarity of vision, not simply an idea of the next action. This means that the leader describes what the group, collectively, is trying to accomplish. He or she also connects the individual’s role to others’ roles within the larger effort. These descriptions of success also include a standard of excellence, a challenge to all member that asks for their best work. And the leader must communicate these ideas in a manner that creates shared understanding within each member of the group. We know that the leader is telling this complete story of vision when members of the group understand – and even feel – that the work matters and must be done well.

Questions to ask

  • What was important about the work of a group you lead, and how did you communicate this to its members?

  • What impact did the group’s product have on the customer, and how did the members see and understand this impact?

  • How did the group talk about their successes, and where did they acquire these stories?

  • What actions did you take to unify different members’ perspectives about the value and process of work?

While telling the story of vision, the leader also connects the members of the group in a way that allows each member to perform his or her tasks. This means making sure members exchange ideas and resources whenever needed, and that these exchanges are effective and ongoing. The leader also encourages interpersonal behaviors that build positive experiences within the group over time and discourages behaviors that are not pleasant or effective. Often these activities look like troubleshooting: the leader sees problems developing and fixes them. Good leaders intervene before anyone else even sees the problem appear, and everything just seems to work smoothly.

Questions to ask

  • When was a time the members of your group did not have the information or resources they needed to perform their work, and how did you address the situation?

  • What actions did you take to encourage members of the group to work together effectively?

  • When did you see a problem before it developed? What did you do to resolve it?

A clear vision gives the group direction, and strong relationships allow members to contribute to the collective effort. But a group’s success requires that the leader convey vision and build relationships in a way that leaves space for individual members to apply their unique perspectives and ideas to their work. If every communication is an order, then the function of learning cannot occur and members will not experiment and improve on their roles. This looks like stagnation and immobility or an organization that simply does the same thing over and over. Members of these organizations are restricted by their roles, rather than encouraged to find new ways to be excellent.

Questions to ask

  • When did your group improve their performance, and what actions did you take to encourage this improvement?

  • When did a member develop a new way to perform work, and what organizational practices did you build and support to encourage this?

  • How did you learn from the members of your group?

Strength can be reassuring, but that doesn’t make it good leadership. A “strong leader” meets our human need for confidence from an external source, but real leadership allows members to overcome their self-doubt and develop their own confidence. Understanding leadership in this way helps us spot effective leaders – in candidates, in organizations, and in society – and it helps us view our own leadership from the perspective of the group. Don’t mistake others’ outward displays of “strength” to distract you from their success or failure as leaders, and don’t allow a desire to appear “strong” to become a limit on your own leadership success.

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