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The time for big-ego leadership is fading fast

Feb 11, 2013 Business Daily, Leadership

“Take time to learn. Learn the people. Learn the organization. Leaders need to leave their ego outside the door before they come in. You cannot know everything. You can never be the alpha and the omega. I have worked with people who were too full of themselves. There have been people who fill up the corridor with their whole ego when they walk. They do not think they have anything to learn from anyone else.
…This kind of attitude does not grow leaders. With today’s Generation X, Y, Z etc, yesterday’s leadership styles do not work, do not inspire.”

MARTIN ODUOR-OTIENO Beyond The Shadows Of My Dream (2012)

I have attended many book launches, but the event marking Martin Oduor-Otieno’s biography late last year has stayed in my mind.

Not because it had whizz-bang pyrotechnics or dazzling displays of celebrity; but simply because those assembled seemed to genuinely care about their host. They weren’t there simply to tick off the invite or rub shoulders with the high and mighty. They actually like Martin.

How many business and political leaders can we point to who have this quality? Who evoke genuine affection in their peers and employees, not just in their families and friends?

Martin is definitely that rare animal. In high-profile business gatherings, I have observed him equally at ease conversing with waiters and attendants, as with his peer CEOs. Even those he has opposed will acknowledge his gentlemanly mien and his unfailing courtesy.

Sadly, most ‘big-man” leaders are nothing like that. As Martin’s reflections on leadership in the final chapter of his book recount, many are no more than egos on stilts. They shout. They bamboozle. They demean. They deride. Their way is the only possible way, otherwise it’s Uhuru highway. And they confuse this with leadership.

Leadership is the art of getting the best out of others. Sometimes, a larger-than-life, forceful personality can get others to perform out of their skins. These people exist, and we have seen them in the likes of Steve Jobs in America and Michael Joseph and James Mwangi closer to home. There is no doubt that those leaders have clocked astonishing results for their institutions.

But those are outliers, unusual folks who engender great support and belief despite being difficult people to deal with. We can’t use them as general role models, for they are not the norm.

If you look beyond the unusual larger-than-life leaders, much of the time, loud leaders do not have compensating attributes. And so they simply burn out their followers and send them heading for the exits. Their arrogance alienates their customers and their shareholders. And their undying belief in their own convictions eventually causes them to make catastrophically bad decisions.

As Martin points out in the excerpt shown here, this type of leadership is increasingly anachronistic. First, the business landscape is simply changing too rapidly. No one person can keep up with or keep tabs on all the disruptive forces out there – as many a big-name CEO has discovered to his cost.

Second, the new generations of employees and customers are not accustomed to being told what to do in a loud voice. Patriarchy is dying everywhere. Native digital socialization is rapidly creating a breed of person who is questioning by nature; used to witnessing or participating in differences of opinion; and accustomed to crowdsourced answers to problems.

In this environment, big-ego leaders are going to look like dinosaurs in a world that has no need of them. They are tumbling everywhere: outpaced by technological change they stubbornly resisted; befuddled by consumers who suddenly abandon them; or toppled by their inability to command the respect of ever-younger teams they can barely understand, let alone lead.

Martin exemplified the softer and more refined skills of leadership long before they became fashionable. This column is honoured to feature him, and urges him to pass on his experience to many others before he calls it a day.

Releasing a book about it is a great start.

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