There are a ton — a ton — of embarrassing anecdotes of business leaders gone wrong. The idiot complaining that the employee parking lot is too empty after 5 o’clock and on the weekends. The moron sending flamemail to the whole company. The dipstick complaining that their compensation is down, too. What the?
We surely are at the point when everyone knows what effective leadership looks like. It’s authentic, honest, accountable, human, skillful and/or brilliant. It’s giving not taking; gentle not harsh, and visionary AND operational. Of course, all of these characteristics are measured by anecdote, so how real are they?
Leadership is bloody difficult, not least because leaders need to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders. Owners want profits, communities want good citizenship, employees want security and differentiated pay, and the leaders themselves have their own needs and wants. Leaders who do well at balancing these needs seem to do well, and others…we read about when they screw up.
Leadership is making decisions, often with just enough information, and in a snapshot of time bereft of intelligence about the future. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. All the adages about hindsight being 20/20 are true – you try to learn from your mistakes, almost using experience as a form of crystal ball. We want to believe it’s a science – especially leaders who hail from the financial and technical disciplines. Those are the leaders who love processes! We also want to believe it’s an art — inspirational, aspirational.
The reality is that it’s a series of difficult decisions, of instinctual judgement calls, of switching between intellectual and more emotional action. That’s why the good leaders are so good. And why the bad leaders are so bad. In my own career, I’ve had to make decisions without all of the information almost all of the time. For the most part, it’s worked out fine, but the risk of failure never leaves me. What have I forgotten? What salient fact is missing that would make me change my mind? If I’d only known!
Most people who do not lead have no concept of what it’s like, particularly at scale, when it’s not just your own skin in the game, but others’.
One small business person told me that as successful as he is (and the path to wealth increasingly winds its way along starting one’s own business), the fact that other people are depending on him to be the smart guy weighs on him every day. The challenge to build something, the desire to achieve isn’t present in just anyone. And even the best will come face to face at some point with the reality that leadership is decision.