In praise of inconspicuous leadership

2015

Many so-called leaders have an unhealthy interest in the outward trappings of their position. But the problem with conspicuous leadership is that it’s usually only skin deep. Real leadership - the inconspicuous kind - is about far more than status or measurable achievements; it’s a life-giving force in itself.

Conspicuous leadership is that human-contrived attempt to add order to organizations. It’s those official authoritative positions identified by title, alignment to top bosses, office size and location, tenure, and the like. These more visible signs of official leadership are granted by organizational ritual, often with memos written by the king, proclaiming, “I am happy to announce the promotion of a bloke who is better at doing things than you are….”

Signs of conspicuous leadership are the measurable things. These leaders are praised for cutting costs, improving processes, spearheading construction of new buildings, adding clients. All that visible stuff is what ends up on resumes; things like accomplishments, education, years in previous jobs, positions held, volunteer work, and hobbies.

Emotional Intelligence: It’s Real

However, what you see on organizational charts or resumes are only tips of icebergs of what real leadership is. It’s those inconspicuous chunks below the water line that really count. The hidden things of leadership, like emotional intelligence, are the ingredients to fostering happy and productive employees. Don’t get me wrong, businesses need some sort of organizational order, but how those humans in authority relate to others is what is most important to business success.

Study after study show that leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence (a real thing) instinctively know how to place fellow leaders and workers at ease, are self-aware, respect the nuances between personal life and work, can be straightforward without being cruel, are decisive, can sense and intervene when employees have personal issues, and can skillfully manipulate change without disturbing the masses. Emotionally strong leaders feel a moral responsibility toward others.

Parenthetic time. I, too, scoffed at the concept of emotional intelligence until I studied it from academic points of view and from non-business frames of reference. It’s real. If you’re not convinced, I suggest hunting down a few books on the subject or searching through peer-reviewed articles. Emotional intelligence is a powerful dealmaker, distinguishing leaders who are effective from those who are destructive.

Antithesis: Low Emotional Intelligence

And, here it comes. Leaders with low levels of emotional intelligence feel little or no responsibility for the human elements of organizations, are unaware of how their own emotions effect the workplace and can derail productivity with a single decree. They’re the leaders who wonder why no one likes them and then come up with their own truisms, like “you can never be friends with the people you lead.”

Frankly, that’s just not true; leaders CAN be friends with the people they lead. I can be much more honest with employees I’m close to than with the ones I barely know. Even in those ugly times when some sort of corrective action is necessary, knowing the person makes any discussion that much more effective and meaningful. Just this week I intervened an employee who, through her behavior, was inadvertently heading down a path that could permanently damage her reputation and future. I’m not saying the conversation was easy (they never are), but I do believe it was more effective because I knew the person fairly well.

Trouble: Self-Identity with a Position

Leaders who rely on their positions for personal identity are less secure in their skin. Sadly, insecure managers are often the NO-mongers. The trouble with these no-bosses is that their employees only ever hear what the boss doesn’t like. And if I only hear the things my boss hates, all my energy will focus on things to avoid. That strategy simply isn’t productive.

But if I know the things my boss likes, especially if they’re good things, I can aim for those with my behavior, decisions, relationships, and emotional intelligence. Smart leaders educate in goals that make sense. Education is the process of introspection and contextual understanding.

Inconspicuous Leaders and Flocks

Followers will do anything for those gems of inconspicuous leaders out of respect, support, and possibly even a touch of love (a subject for another time). In a leadership focus group, a gathering of employees described a manager they believed in by saying, “We’d walk through walls for Harriet.” That’s a pretty darn powerful statement. Leaders with this kind of praise are adept at moving the machine along toward productive ends. They achieve this kind of support through their powers of understanding emotions, context, timing, and systems.

If you really want to know the true skinny on a leader’s effectiveness, don’t bother asking that person’s boss. Instead, go right to most accurate assessment scale in the book, direct reports and cohorts. Bosses often aren’t privy to the inconspicuous side of direct report leadership.

A Lesson from Robert Frost

A framed copy of a Robert Frost poem, A Time to Talk, sits on my desk. It’s my personal business model, the overriding philosophy for how I like to run my business. This powerful verse explains emotional intelligence in ways I never could. Here goes:

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Thanks for listening.

  Categories:
more articles

About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.