Over the past 30 years or so I’ve collected a number of universal principles, little gems of insight that both reflect and influence the way things work and also suggest how we can make them work better. They’re valuable tools for families in business. Among them is the principle of role choice. It goes like this: “You can be a worker, or a manager, or an executive or a leader. But you can’t be any of them successfully if you try to be all of them at the same time.”
One of the lessons we learned from Jimmy Carter’s presidency is that the higher you rise in the hierarchy of authority and the broader your responsibility becomes, the less time and attention you can afford to devote to operational details. Ever the engineer and a man of the people, Carter buttoned up his cardigan each morning and went downstairs to the Oval Office to micromanage the world. It turned out that he couldn’t do it.
The lesson? Don’t hesitate to work, read or brush your teeth with your door closed. Don’t feel that you have to make a decision or announce an opinion on everything. Otherwise, you’ll get swamped with everyone’s details because everyone wants his problem attended to by big daddy or big mama, by the boss or by the designated successor, the person who’s going to become the boss.
Sure, it tickles your ego to think of yourself as the indispensable do-everything team leader/team manager/team member. But that’s self-deceptive. And if you refuse to choose your best role and hand off the others, you’ll weaken your company and your family by suffocating everyone else’s growth and development.
“I don’t deal with that anymore” is the motto of the rising star and the responsible leader as well as the person with sound controls in place. “Call me if you really need help, but first try to work it out yourself” is the motivational pitch of the responsible parent.
There’s a point where you have to stop schlepping the load and start generating the vision and providing leadership to other people who are schlepping the load. You have to give up being a laborer to become a good manager. You have to give up being a manager to become a good executive. You might have to give up being an executive to be truly a leader.
Speaking of which, there’s much more text out there on leadership than on workership. Not much of it, however, talks about how to decide when to lead the troops out of the trench and when to sit out the fight in a command post on high ground. There are scads of descriptions of what leadership is. Now here are a few things that leadership isn’t.
Leadership isn’t just ability. It’s an atmosphere of confidence and a light of clarity that flows from and surrounds the real leader that fills the room with the exhilaration of possibility.
Leadership isn’t just vision. It’s an exuded sense of great destinations that brings others on board. It’s not just being at the head of the parade. Sometimes it’s being way out in front of the parade, scouting the opportunities and illuminating the way.
Leadership isn’t just the acknowledgment of some grander purpose and greater good. It’s a bonded commitment to them. Real leadership is grounded in a higher level of self-interest that’s tied to the interests of those who trust and follow it.
Leadership isn’t just the exercise of authority, regardless of how well founded and inspired the authority might be, or the application of bring-‘em-off-their-chairs motivational techniques. It’s the building of mutual respect and interdependence and the rewarding of loyalty, even if that occasionally calls for laying the tools of authority and motivation aside for a while.
Leadership isn’t just an act of intuition, and it isn’t a part-time or temporary occupation. Leadership requires concentration and as you ascend into it, leadership demands that you cultivate its craft and its inspiration.
Greatness, say some sages, may be thrust you when you haven’t chosen it. But you can usually choose your role in the scheme of things. If you’re inclined to choose leadership, choose it very carefully. Because once you accept the role, in your family, your business, or your community, you usually have it for life.
James Lea advises family owned companies and other privately held businesses in the U.S. and other countries. He is a speaker, author and columnist. Visit him at www.yourfamilybusiness.net, and send comments or questions about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.