Leaders and Misleaders

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In his introduction van Heerden makes the point that we now have more literature than ever before on effective leadership and how to solve the leadership problems facing organisations worldwide. He adds, “tertiary courses on leadership proliferate as universities and business schools cash in on the obvious deficiency, and the corporate world spends every more money on leadership development. We have never been busier trying to produce leaders, yet we are still desperately short of good leadership”.

He asserts that fewer than 10% of leaders demonstrate the kind of leadership that we should be calling ‘good’ or ‘effective’, let alone ‘true’ or ‘great’, and explains that the scarcity of good, effective leadership has led to citizens and employees becoming disillusioned, demoralised, cynical, disengaged, unmotivated and distrustful of the heads of companies, corporations and countries.

In the workplace, a key symptom of the leadership crisis is, as van Heerden puts it, “the almost total absence of loyalty on either side of the management-employee divide”. The same symptom is rife in the government-citizen divide.

So what to do? Van Heerden, who is originally from Zimbabwe and whose experience ranges from being a soldier to an advertising creative director to a leadership mentor, believes the fault lies in our understanding of what leadership is really about. I think he is spot on.

Good, effective leaders make a positive difference to people’s lives. They are committed to improving the lives of all people and improving the manner in which we care for the natural environment because this is what sustains us. A strong sense of our shared humanity underlies their actions and in the way they engage with people. They inspire people to be the best they can be, in mutual pursuit of a better life for all.

Misleaders are concerned about becoming the president, prime minister or CEO of a country or company, largely for egotistical, power-mongering reasons. They are all about making a financial fortune to elevate themselves and their cronies or shareholders above everyone else, again, largely for egotistical, power-mongering reasons. There is a distinct lack of acknowledgement of our shared humanity in their actions and in the way they engage with people. They spread fear and set different groups of people against each other. They capitalise on crises and use this as a platform to get into power by promising all sorts of benefits that are never delivered.

Bearing these definitions in mind, when people ask me what I think of Donald Trump, my reply is best conveyed through an article by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker on 29 February 2016, titled Shut Up And Sit Down. He refers to Donald Trump’s first official campaign TV advertisement:“The ad features a procession of alarming images—the San Bernardino shooters, a crowd at passport control, the flag of Syria’s Al Nusra Front—designed to communicate the idea of a country under siege… Trump, a voice-over explains, will ‘quickly cut the head off ISIS—and take their oil’.

When you analyse what Trump says, it is, as his name suggests, all about trump cards and trumpet calls that boost his image as the big, bold leader that the world so desperately needs. Yet, what describes him more accurately – the definition of leadership or misleadership?

Using these definitions to distinguish leaders from misleaders goes a long way to separating truth from lies. And we need to do this to restore trust and belief in good, effective leadership that upholds and encourages truth and honesty. The alternative is an environment where truth and honesty is replaced with political correctness and half-truths in an environment where employees and citizens fear their positions and even lives are at risk if they communicate openly.

This is why most leadership training is so ineffective.

People are sent for leadership training, often reluctantly, where they are fed a leadership formula and pretty much taught how to toe the line and play the game. There is often a show of encouraging independent thinking, but, in effect, very few people come out of leadership training sessions having started to develop a sense of their own originality, impact, empathy truth and humanity.

Think about how people described as leaders in your own organisation or environment behave. How do they speak to you? When you speak, do they listen to you? It says a lot about how they lead. Let me share a personal example with you. In a previous work experience I worked in countries with relatively senior people. In one particular country in Africa where I went many times for extended periods, the Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, under whose jurisdiction I was working, would make a point of inviting me to meet with him. He would make me tea, ask about my family and express his appreciation for the time I spent away from them to assist in his country. He showed huge integrity and always followed up with interest in the intervention in which I was engaged for them; and was always absolutely committed to engaging with mutual respect. Out of all the countries in which I worked, this was the most effective intervention I experienced.

Another example, in another country, was where I was once again working with the Minister of Trade and Industry. The only time that I met him was when the process had been finalised and I shared a podium with him. Even then, he never greeted me, spoke to me or even said goodbye. Self-importance oozed out of every pore of his body. Needless to say that country never got off first base.

We still did our job to the best of our ability in both cases, but in the first instance it was with a heartfelt commitment to the intervention because of how the leader behaved: with character, respect and integrity that ensured the process was implemented.

These are the priceless leadership qualities that few leaders seem to have. It is time we stood up against misleaders. The damage caused by them is incalculable.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 372, July, 2016. It is reproduced with their permission.