The Leadership Acid Test - Are you in charge?

This first appeared in GSABusiness.

The leadership acid test – Are you in charge?
By Phil Yanov

The actor observer paradox points out that all too often we can see problems in others that we can not see in ourselves. This problem manifests itself for people in leadership roles more frequently than the population at large because leaders are used to quieting out their distractions en route to their goal. A leader can become so focused on her goals that she never notices the blind spot developing that leaves her vulnerable to a very common failure of leadership.

If you find yourself at the head of a coffee club, non-profit church committee, a small business, or a large one, you can be failing in leadership role without realizing your trouble until it is too late to fix it. In busy organizations a manager is so frequently caught up in managing people, schedules, budgets and the like that they fail to see that they may be managing, but they are not leading.

Are you leading? (or are you just managing?) You can find out by honestly asking yourself a simple question. By the way, it is a simple question, but you have to ask it of yourself with absolute sincerity. Take a deep breath and then ask yourself “If I am the leader, who is following?”

If you think you are leading but it turns out that no one is following, you are not the leader. Managers manage whoever is assigned to them, but leaders lead only those who choose to follow them. Leaders without followers are just guys with clipboards or as they say in Texas “Big Hat. No Cattle.”

The “lack of committed followers” problem is most easily spotted in volunteer groups because volunteers, unlike employees, can stop showing up for work much easier. Your “employees” are giving you valuable, timely feedback. If they are not confident in your skills, they stop showing up for “work.” If you were running a department in a large business, it might be weeks or months before you get this sort of feedback because it might take weeks or months for your employee to find another job.

So ask yourself… are people following? Signs of not following include employees repeatedly not completing work they had agreed to, habitual tardiness, or absenteeism. Most employees will not want to confront your leadership problem directly. They will avoid the issue while looking for some place else to be.

It might be that you have been unlucky enough to find yourself, through promotion or career change, leading an unhealthy group. Even if you do, fixing the group dynamic problem is still your responsibility. That’s what leadership is all about. I have had some of my most rewarding experiences in inheriting teams that did not work well together. We shuffled personnel to put every person where they could function optimally and had to make some hard decisions about people who did not fit our group culture. It was difficult work, but it yielded great results. On other occasions, when I, as the leader, ignored the problem, in hopes that it would go away, the results were much worse. I got my head handed to me. The moral of the story was clear for me. Fix the problem quickly or it won’t be your problem anymore.

If you find that people aren’t following, what should you do? First, let’s define what leadership is.

Leadership is:
• assembling the right team,
• inspiring them with both personal integrity and vision,
• giving them meaningful goals towards that vision,
• holding them accountable for their performance,
• and celebrating their contributions with them.

Are you doing all of these things? Failure on any one of them will create problems. If you are not doing these things, then find out why and fix it. Get help from a friend or coach. Find someone who has led a team like yours, and ask them if they can help you understand what the problems are and how you might better manage them. Successful leaders usually have well developed coaching skills and are glad to help someone else develop to their potential.

You should also begin a leadership reading program immediately. Many wonderful books on leadership are available at the local library. Commit to reading or (listening on tape) to at least three books by different authors in the next three months. Regularly filling your mind with proven techniques from multiple points of view will help you continually evaluate your leadership approach while strengthening your leadership muscles.

Aspiring leader should take heart. Leadership is not a natural talent, gifted upon lucky people at birth. Leadership is a learned skill. If you commit to study the skills of great leaders and practice them for yourself, then you too will be in the lead.

About Phil Yanov

Phil Yanov is a Technologist, Columnist and Public Radio Commentator.

He is the founder of Tech After Five as well as the founder and President of the GSA Technology Council and the IT Leadership Council.

His personal technology column appears in Greenville Business Magazine and the Columbia Business Journal.

He co-hosts the Your Day technology shows heard on NPR radio stations across South Carolina and is a frequent contributor to technology stories appearing on radio and television.