It’s okay to lead.
I mean it. Go ahead. It’s okay.
I’ve run into a number of otherwise capable, knowledgeable, smart, visionary strategic thinkers in this business who would be fine IT executives save for one minor deficit: Somewhere along the line, they learned the opposite: That leading people isn’t okay.
Ignore all the fancy words you’ve read over the years about what it means to be a leader. In the end, there’s just one measure of leadership: Whether anyone is following. If they are, you’re leading. Otherwise, you’re doing something else.
These managers know what should happen, but aren’t willing to insist that it happen. They’re willing to be right, but aren’t willing to exhibit the behavior necessary to turn their rightness into a business change. Ask them why and you get a variety of answers, most of which boil down to one of just two major themes.
The first is a lack of courage. Some managers worry that if they take the actions necessary to make sure the changes they envision turn into reality, some people won’t like them; the ideas might prove to have unanticipated consequences; or the program is politically risky, and if it doesn’t work out well, the likely outcome is to be shown the door.
These aren’t small things, and I don’t want to pretend they are. While deciding on inaction because someone might not like you or your alternative has a certain cravenness to it, wise leaders do avoid alienating those they lead unnecessarily. And they take the risks of unanticipated consequences or personal unemployment into account in their decision-making. They don’t avoid a decision because of fear, but do make wise decisions that take all foreseeable consequences into account.
Which is to say, wise leaders are willing to be bold, and to make unpopular decisions. They aren’t however, willing to be Don Quixote, fighting unwinnable battles because the nobility of the effort alone makes them worthwhile.
Other managers aren’t so much afraid to lead as they are concerned that doing so is, at some fundamental level, immoral. By not allowing people to say no, you’re forcing them to do something they don’t want to under duress. And that’s a wrong thing to do.
Which is to say that somewhere along the line, the most basic attribute of leadership — the exercise of authority — got a bad name.
It’s hard to say exactly how this happened. One possibility is that it’s because too many leaders abused their authority for too many years, mistaking authoritarian decision-making for the proper use of authority. Some management theorists, missing the point, concluded the problem was the exercise of authority itself rather than overuse of the least useful way to make decisions.
Another possibility is that it’s the result of conflating public and private sector governance. Empowerment is, after all, an assumption in American society.
In the United States, we reject the whole notion of royalty, insisting that governments are only legitimate with the consent of the governed. That’s public governance. Citizens are naturally empowered; we delegate authority to our government to prevent collisions among those naturally empowered citizens. We aren’t supposed to consider elected officials to be better than we are. We’re supposed to consider them public servants, not aristocrats.
So maybe business managers worry that if they exert their authority they’re somehow being un-American, acting like they think they’re better than anyone else.
Or maybe we should blame Scott Adams for making too many managers worry if they’re turning into a pointy-haired boss.
The etiologies of public and corporate governance are opposites. Citizens delegate authority to their government; business owners delegate authority to their employees. The difference is just one reason among many that the whole notion of “running government like a business” is dangerous (and quite different from the entirely sensible notion of running government in a businesslike way).
The delegation of authority and responsibility is quite different from the abdication of authority and the disenfranchisement of leadership. Sadly, many managers bought into this strange notion that any use of authority makes them bad people, and worse, arrogant people who must think they’re part of the business aristocracy and therefore morally inferior to others with a more egalitarian mindset.
If you’re one of them, stop worrying. You’re allowed to make decisions. Heck, making sure important decisions get made is part of the job description, as is making sure they’re acted on.
Not everyone will like them; not everyone will automatically accept them unless you insist on it. Stop worrying about that.
It’s okay to lead.