The Real Problem with Leadership

by Rosa Say for Say “Alaka‘i” on May 25, 2010

One problem with leadership, is simply that we don’t have enough of it.

The bigger problem with leadership is that it isn’t attractive to us. We, as individuals, aren’t accepting it as our Kuleana, and personal responsibility. We keep looking for someone else to lead, for the truth of the matter is that we prefer being followers (and sadly, armchair quarterbacks ready to complain.)

Here’s the catch: The best leaders are the ones who expect more leadership from you, not ‘good’ following.

In Lost, Jacob was on a quest to find another leader, and someone who could do what he could not. Photo courtesy ABC.

Are we looking in all the wrong places?

If you do a search on Amazon.com for leadership books, over 61,306 results come up, and those are only the ones with the word ‘leadership’ in the product description’s keywords. (If you’re curious about the comparison, as I was, 603,208 results come up for ‘management.’)

My theory is that so many people write about leadership because we’re still yearning for it: We seek it by trying to articulate it better, so we’ll know exactly what we’re looking for, especially in a world which is anything but static and stable. As with most things, we can better grab onto something we can tangibly identify.

I’ll often remind myself of this longstanding leadership quest so that I focus better in my own writing about it. What I’m trying to do, is to help you see leadership as the visible evidence of self-leadership behaviors: Leading is for you, and not just “the other guy.” If you look for leadership in someone else, you will always be looking, and you’ll always feel frustrated.

So there’s three ways I’ll break leadership down when writing about it:

  1. I’ll connect it to the creation of energy as our most important resource (my way of defining leadership), for hopefully, that’s very desireable to you: Gathering your own energy is where you must start. You fuel up.
  2. I’ll write about the opportunities we have to lead, and state them as your calls to action (recent examples have been Sense of Workplace and Job Creation).
  3. I’ll write about that action as activities that are not larger than your life, but highly possible: They are tangible bits which squarely sit in your own circle of influence.

However what’s very frustrating for me, is that I constantly hear back: “It needs to start at the top, right?” and the finger-pointing at the boss will begin immediately. Maybe so; maybe improvement does need to happen with your boss too, but what if it never happens? Will you really be content with playing the victim forever? Why not start any necessary improvement with you?

We have to stop this blame game where we constantly look at someone else as the reason we do not take action and behave better, or with greater bravery. Please stop focusing on what the other guy is doing about it, and look within. Leadership is scarce when there’s a scarcity of initiativeyours.

Be honest: We’re looking for saviors

Leadership is open to everyone, and opportunity abounds, but we don’t see it that way. We refuse to, and shield ourselves in self-righteousness instead. Pure yuck. It’s a cop-out to say that the problem with leadership is the way someone else does it (or doesn’t).

This is something that really bugs me about election seasons, such as we’re in right now: They proliferate the misconception that leadership is about title, position and placement. We get stuck in believing that “winner takes all” and he or she will now be the only one who is “the leader” when that simply isn’t true. The smartest thing the so-called winner can do is tap into the leadership desires of his or her previous opponents to channel them, such as President Obama did when he asked Hillary Rodham Clinton to work with him as our U.S. Secretary of State.

However if he hadn’t done so, would Clinton have stopped her practice of self-leadership, neglecting to renew her initiative? I sincerely doubt it. She would have looked for another opportunity, and so can you.

Be your own savior. Solve the leadership problem by always asking, “What about me? What can I do?” or if it’s more comfortable for you, ask, “How can I help?” and “Where can I start?”

The way we solve “the problem with leadership” is to solve our problem with self-leadership being missing from our personal practice. Your small wins can create big domino effects.

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Archive Aloha: Here’s a Take 5 of related postings:

  1. Initiative, Humility and the Local Way
  2. Who leads? You do. In the Sweet Spot Quote: “The trouble with all or nothing is that it is often too intimidating to choose all, making it much too easy to choose nothing.”
  3. Guilt-Free Self-Leadership: 12 Possibilities
  4. “What’s in it for me?” is a Self-Leadership Question
  5. Leadership is Why and When and Management is What and How

Check out the post tags for more.

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sayalakai_rosasayMy mana‘o [The Backstory of this posting]
Each Tuesday I write a leadership posting for Say “Alaka‘i” at Hawai‘i’s newspaper The Honolulu Advertiser and will add copies to Talking Story when they blend nicely with our conversations here. If this is the first you have caught sight of my Say “Alaka‘i” tagline, you can learn more on this Talking Story page: About Say “Alaka‘i”. There are some differences in this Talking Story version, most notably that most of my hyperlinks will keep you here on this blog.

{ 4 comments }

Mike Faber May 25, 2010 at 11:55 am

Once again Rosa, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The #1 attribute of great leaders I’ve observed is their ability to push their self-interest aside and let others claim the laurels. Ego sucks energy out of people, which diminishes creativity and natural curiousity. That’s why I love the idea that leadership is about listening to people more than about talking at them. a hui hou!
.-= Mike Faber ´s last blog ..Aloha Leadership and Amazing Tales of Hawai’i =-.

Rosa Say May 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I understand what you mean Mike, yet in a way I’m writing this because I’m wanting more ego from everyone else — I want them to feel any “leader” as “the boss” in some position “above” them is largely irrelevant: they don’t need another leader other than themselves because they have enough leadership capacity in spades and need to display it, and allow it to come into play. If healthy ego can help in that regard I’m all for it, for there are a ton of leadership doors to be stepped through.

It is true what you say, where someone else’s ego “sucks energy out of people, which diminishes creativity and natural curiosity,” yet one’s own ego can be a welcome dose of both those things!

al gates May 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm

As Rosa said, “The way we solve “the problem with leadership” is to solve our problem with self-leadership being missing from our personal practice.” I tend to support and as I have mentioned to my leadership workshop participants in the past, the last word on Leadership is still to be written. Read my article on this whole issue of Leadership at: http://Bit.ly/a9OMIr (This thing called Leadership). Take a read.

Rosa Say May 25, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Thank you for sharing your article Al (and for making the link connection back here). Your list there truly reinforces my desire to strike both “leadership” and “leader” from my vocabulary as much as possible, concentrating on lead and leading as VERBS of self-propelled action. We need not choose either/or on that list and can instead apply them as you coach there.

We also are very likeminded on that whole “is a leader born or made” thing… you’ve inspired me to resurrect another discussion we’d once had about that too!

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