In years of leading executive discussion groups and off-sites I have come to expect that most attempts to define leadership end up with(or at least pass through) a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, who is known for the concept of “I do not know how to define it- but I know it when I see it.” (A true reading of Justice Stewart’s remarks and intent can be viewed here.) That same inability to point to a specific definition allows for some very creative uses of the word leadership. Sadly, it has become the “That’s not fair” of modern politics. Think I am wrong on this? Google search turned up 103 million references for “show some leadership”.
As young as 3 or 4, my son knew that when kids say “That’s not fair” it usually really meant “I am not getting what I want.” Children learn early that a direct statement of what they want is easy to dismiss or ignore. But, in our desire to teach fairness and equanimity to our kids they reach for the juvenile “f- word”.
When I hear a politician or other public figure, usually pointing the finger at someone else and saying that he or she should “…show some leadership…” it is really a translation for “he or she should do what I want.”
For every conservative who calls on President Obama to “…show some leadership and cut spending further” there is a liberal who opines that President Obama should “…show some leadership and get serious about the environment.” Behind each statement is the unspoken but very loud assumption that the speaker is absolutely, undeniably and beyond a shadow of a doubt- right. In my view- they are more self-righteous.
Look at what is happening in Wisconsin. Both sides virulently argue that the other should show some leadership. Well, that is what they are both doing. Skilled or not each side is leading toward a change that they passionately believe in. When “show some leadership” really means “agree with me” there is not much common ground to stand on.
Sad to say businesses are not immune from this issue. Disagreements about budgets, priorities and strategies often start with the challenge that no one is willing to consider that others have a valid point of view. From that perspective, debate becomes diatribe and little gets resolved. Truly high performing teams know this. They debate and even advocate passionately until a decision is made. Like the decision or not, in making it the team leader has shown leadership. In the best teams, from that point forward, everyone lets their upset go and gets on the bus.