They win people over. They inspire, motivate, set objectives. They are present not only in the military, but also in politics, business, and sport.
Dwight Eisenhower, an American army general who served as the 34th president of the United States, said that a leader’s power is determined by his ability to persuade his men to voluntarily do what he wants them to do. When Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces during WWII, he carried out an experiment among his subordinates. He took a chain and arranged it to form a pile. Then he asked: “If I push this chain, which way will it go?” He heard many answers, and the correct one was: “Nobody really knows.” Later, he asked: “If I hold the end of the chain and pick it up, which way will it go?” The answer was: “It will follow you.”
“This is the essence of leadership. When you push people, you don’t really know which way they will go. However, if you are able to lead them and make them follow you, it proves that you have the skills necessary to be a leader. Leadership is a gift. You cannot buy it, you cannot sell it, you cannot exchange it. Either you have it in you or you don’t,” said Bob Davids, an American designer and businessman, in a lecture devoted to leadership in the contemporary world.
AAA Desperately Needed
A few years ago, the World Economic Forum in Geneva conducted a survey among over 1,700 experts of various types, in order to determine current leadership trends. One of the conclusions was that the world is facing a leadership crisis and there is a visible lack of strong, effective leaders. “This is connected to the transformations that are ongoing in the global sphere: we live fast, we feel lost, we break off relationships with people. Therefore, the need has arisen for a new way of leading people,” says Marek Pawlak, PhD, a former military man, a lecturer at the War Studies University, an instructor with experience in the army and in business.
Leadership is nothing new, though. It can be traced, for instance, in the demeanor of successful military leaders. It is enough to reach into our own history and look at such figures as Władysław Jagiełło, Tadeusz Kościuszko, or Józef Piłsudski. However, today we need perceive leadership in a broader sense, without limiting it to the relation between soldiers and their commander. People need leaders when various types of communities are established, thus creating positions of power. “In every case, we are dealing with exactly the same action mechanisms. Of course, the context may differ, each organization has different objectives, and therefore different consequences of undertaken actions. In the army, negative consequences may include, for example, human losses, in business – financial, and in politics – smaller public support,” explains Marek Pawlak.
Experts admit that there are in fact very few true leaders. “Everyone else just dreams about leadership, forgetting fundamental managerial competencies. Without them, it is impossible to be a true leader. What’s more, you can’t become one overnight. It is a long, arduous, and consistent process of expanding knowledge, developing skills and building authority,” enumerates Waldemar Dziwniel, senior management staff consultant with more than 20 years’ experience, president of Fabryka Motywacji (Motivation Factory), a human resources-related consulting and training company. The word “leader” is often overused. It is partly due to the current fashion for always being in the lead, but also because of the tendency to avoid calling things what they really are and our love of using grand words. “Some terms are intentionally, artificially created just to draw attention. There is no doubt that the word »leader« sounds better than »manager«,” says Anna Piekut, a recruitment specialist at Fabryka Motywacji.
Let us use an analogy: just like in the army command is often confused with leadership, in the civil environment a manager is permanently confused with a leader. “The former one sets objectives and checks the extent in which they have been achieved. Leadership is nothing else but adding soul to the whole process. It is hard to describe, but easy to notice,” adds Waldemar Dziwniel. Anna Piekut claims leadership is a kind of art, and gives another analogy: “A craftsman does many useful things according to plan, but it is an artist that has the charisma, the spark, something that allows him to give these things a new shape, make people more engaged and interested in them. Not every craftsman can become an artist, and yet you can’t be an artist without proper preparation and knowledge.”
In Employees’ Shoes
Even for someone who obtains the necessary knowledge, leadership can still remain in the realm of dreams, because in order to make people want to follow you, a leader needs to possess various personality traits that can be applied when managing a team. So what should a leader be like? Certainly charismatic, creative, resourceful, enjoying respect, open, able to win over people. There are many characteristics that could be added to this list, but according to Marek Pawlak, our idea of a leader is very often far from reality: “An efficient leader is rarely compassionate and friendly. They can never be anyone’s “buddy,” for the changes they introduce in the organization are often against the popular will. That’s why I find many typical definitions of a leader mythologizing the subject rather than explaining it.”
Pawlak goes as far as to call a good leader a “positive psychopath.” “Truth be told, desired and effective leaders possess many traits of a psychopath. They fulfill people’s expectations, they make you feel safe and empowered. Leaders read emotions and have the ability to take advantage of them in order to plan and persuade others to act effectively, but at the same time often destructively,” explains Marek Pawlak. “This will certainly not be the person who pats you on the back every day with a smile. A leader must be firm, but also fair. He should be able to introduce proper discipline, but also positively motivate the team to obtain the overarching, but sustainable goal, good for the whole organization,” he adds. The President of Fabryka Motywacji, on the other hand, points out that: “A radical change of one’s own personality, becoming someone else just to be able to aspire to the role of a leader, is somewhat schizophrenic. It can’t work,” he says.
In practice, even a boss who is an expert in his field, will not achieve much if he does not know human nature, and is not able to build relations and self-esteem within a team. “Leaders should pay special attention to interpersonal communication. We have a huge problem with that, both in the army and in business. During trainings, it more than often turns out that commanders, or managers, know very little about their subordinates,” admits Pawlak. In such cases we cannot talk about cooperation. “One department has no idea what another department does. Everyone is focused on their own duties, people don’t meet on briefings, they don’t hang out after work in informal circumstances. They don’t know that cooperation is good for the entire organization. I thought it was obvious, but I was astonished with how little understanding people have of this,” admits Piotr Gąstał, the former commander of the GROM Military Unit (JW GROM).
Grzegorz Kokot, the President of the training company Mind Valve, specializes in the psychology of leadership and management, as well as the behavioral aspects of security. Several years ago he was an instructor at a course on leadership (Lider) organized by the then Land Forces Command. “Leadership is building a bond with your subordinates, which requires active participation and getting up from behind the desk. The strongest bond is most often created during shared, frequently extreme, experiences. It is enough to look at the relationships among soldiers who have been on missions together. They have been with one another non-stop, going through difficult times together,” says Kokot. That is why, the expert says, in order to understand his subordinates, a leader must walk in their shoes, go beyond some limits with them.
“We organized a training in a company that was struggling with management problems, from the company manager level down. We decided to organize a 24-hour class in the forest for all managers. One of the bosses, although he didn’t have to do it, decided to take part in the exercise. He executed the tasks together with his employees, walked across all the puddles with them, felt the same amount of cold and pain as they did. In this simple way he earned their respect, which bore fruit for years to come,” says Kokot.
All for One
Why is it so important to know your personnel? If a leader knows people who surround him, he can not only communicate better with them, but also activate them and use their abilities when needed. For example, he knows who to rely on in crisis situations. Waldemar Dziwniel emphasizes that a leader has to see people’s best sides, and this is impossible without building a relationship with them. “It is the subordinates that really create leaders, by following them, drawing inspiration, achieving goals set by them. Behind every success there is always a team of people. You had to be Piłsudski to come up with the plan for the 1920 Polish-Soviet War campaign, but he obviously didn’t do it alone – he attracted people who were ready to do anything for him,” says Dziwniel.
Therefore, the position of a leader is also connected with the ability to make decisions and delegate tasks. “At the beginning, the founders of Google recruited each worker personally. Now, as one of the most sought-after companies, it has so many employees that it would be virtually impossible. There are no transparent people there, everyone is special in some way. This demanding model of selecting the staff is nothing else but the result of the bosses’ decisiveness, trust, but also sharing power with the employees responsible for recruitment,” says Dziwniel.
One of the more important trends today, to which no leader can remain indifferent, is managing by referring to values. “It might be, for example, high quality of life, although in practice we can also come across unskillful references to abstraction. In order to engage people, you need to give them facts,” says the president of Fabryka Motywacji. Such values may be found within the company, its culture – in what people think about it, what their opinion is on the way it is managed, the quality of work, the role of a person. “Today, people care a lot about the way their company is perceived outside, its external image, while in fact it is mainly the internal conditions that determine the company’s strength and lay the foundations for creating leaders. The example comes from the top. If the president of the board and the upper management levels constantly search for new, better methods of operation, their employees are likely to also feel the need for such change. It is worse when someone is certain of their importance, infallibility, and irreplaceability. Such narcissism, in spite of grand slogans, surely does not foster the creation of leaders,” evaluates Kokot.
Are leaders needed? Theoretically, we need someone to guide us in the right direction. “Many experiments have been carried out in order to check if society needs leaders. In Moscow, for example, orchestra musicians attempted to play without a conductor. They knew the notes, the tempo, they all heard one another – but it still didn’t work,” says Dziwniel. Therefore, it seems that every environment, be it politics, church, army, business – needs someone who will guide all the others.
“I went to China [...], I built a company, started with a handful of people and we ended up with 8,000 people. We had to build a factory to house 8,000 people. On occasion, I would go to Guangzhou, and walk around and inspect the site. I have a technical background, so I felt I had a little bit of expertise in construction. And one monsoon rainy afternoon we’re walking along by the foundation, and I look down in the ditch and I see five or six men working and they’re installing a sewer pipe. And they had a level, and I’m looking down and I see that they’re making the pipes level, while I have enough technical background to know that a level pipe’s not going to flow. And it’s going to get buried under the foundation, so we’re going to have lifetime problems, because we’ll never get to this to fix it. So I thought about telling them how to fix it, and then I realized I didn’t speak Chinese. So I took off my shoes and I jumped in the trench. I know that a one-inch pebble underneath one end of the level will be just about 2% grade, that’s what we needed. So without saying a word, I grabbed the level, I took a rock and I held it, and went back to pipes. I raised one up and I signaled for them to put some sand under the pipe, and we got it just right. And then I went to the next pipe, then I did it again, and on the third pipe I handed it to the men in the trench and I had them hold a pebble under the level until they got it just right. Then I asked them to do one more, and they did. And then I got out of the trench, took my shoes and went back to the hotel. [...]
I had no idea what was going to happen. But inside I was realizing [...] that if I had pushed them and I had yelled at them and told them what to do, I probably wouldn’t know where they’d go. But by grabbing the level and pulling them, showing them exactly what to do without saying a single word in a totally different culture, they listened. That incident went through the whole company, and they realized that it was – it’s a symbol that I would jump in the trenches with them. The big boss would jump in the trench in the mud and pull them. I had no idea it was going to be so powerful. But it really paid off. [...] Power comes when the people that you are leading give you their support.”
The quote comes from a lecture entitled “Leadership without Ego,” given in 2015 by an American designer and businessman Bob Davids.
autor zdjęć: Michał Zieliński