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Do you understand the true nature of leadership?

Jul 12, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“The true leader is a manager who works with people and considers them to be unique and unrepeatable, and seeks their excellence on all levels…Leading means being capable of directing people in such a way that you get the best out of them, unleashing their full potential by being a good coach and mentor. This type of manager is generous, capable of getting employees to develop links with the company and identification with himself and the corporate project. ”

Nuria Chinchilla and Maruja Moragas, Masters of our Destiny (2008)

Professor Nuria Chinchilla, an eminent professor at IESE Business School in Spain, was in Nairobi recently to lead Strathmore Business School’s new “The Leading Woman” program. I was fortunate enough to teach alongside her and received a signed copy of her co-authored book, excerpted above.

Here, the professor is touching on the very heart of leadership. I run a leadership development course myself, and am always struck by how little we all understand about the true nature of leadership. We are brought up, it seems, to think of leadership in very masculine, Hollywood terms: the larger-than-life leader with the heart of a lion who leads from the front, takes every hard decision, barks out orders and brooks no challenge.

Well, okay, there are indeed leaders like that, and in certain situations (like the do-or-die scenes of Hollywood movies) they can be quite effective. But in most normal settings (and certainly in the corporate world) good leadership is an altogether different thing.

We also mistake leadership for authority, for position, for title, for status. Those things may be the byproducts of leadership, but they do not define it. We imagine we have become leaders, particularly in Kenya, because we command the highest salary, the biggest office and the most expensive car. Again, holding those things is not leadership.

Good leadership, as Professor Chinchilla shows in her book, is about collective, not personal, uplift. It is about the achievement of a common mission that is to the benefit of all. The tools of leadership are not coercion and fear, they are inspiration, persuasion and coaching. It has always been so. The great leaders of history are not just the valiant and the confident; they have always been great students of human psychology and natural empathisers who got the best out of people.

Think about it: a leader achieves not through his or her own efforts, but from the efforts of others. There are many ways to make others put in effort: you can kick them, threaten them, intimidate them, mislead them, manipulate them. Those leadership tactics are the stock-in-trade of the average leader who has never understood the nature of command. These leaders see individual followers as mere pawns on a chessboard, tools to be exploited when useful and cast aside when unneeded.

Great leaders, on the other hand, treat each follower as a “unique and unrepeatable” human being with individual, highly personal hopes and aspirations. Great leaders try to marry the aspirations of the individual with those of the collective. To do this they have to be generous and genuinely concerned with the development of others, and they have to be motivators par excellence.

Please understand: I am not advocating a touchy-feely namby-pamby leadership style here. Good leaders also need to be firm, confident and emphatic. They have to be intensely determined, and courageous enough to take responsibility for risks that may well frighten the faint of heart. Those things are not negotiable in leadership. But what is missing in so many leaders is the ability to ignite enthusiasm in others and manage their personal development. The best leaders in history have been those who have merged individual and collective goals to dramatic effect.

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