Should Leadership Come with a Warning Label?

Barbara Steel Leadership

warningAt home, reach for any household product and it contains a warning label: “For external use only. When using this product, do not get into eyes. Keep out of the reach of children. If you experience dizziness or light-headed, discontinue use and consult a physician immediately.”

Warning labels seem ominous because they are designed to alert users of possible risks and consequences associated with misuse of the product. They also likely contain advice about what to do in the event a problem occurs while using the product. Users are therefore armed with helpful information about how to respond to an unintended or unforeseen problem while enjoying the benefits of using the product.

Well, if household items contain warning labels why not leadership? How can we warn individuals of what to expect if they accept a leadership role, or provide them with some tips on what to do when unintended consequences happen? This idea occurred to me while reflecting on a recent class lecture on leadership in the 21st century.

Our professor showed a slide presentation containing photos of well-known leaders and asked us to react to each person, comment on their actions and decisions as well as the effects of their leadership. We discussed Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, Capt. Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, and President John F. Kennedy, to name a few. We had a spirited discussion and scrutinized each leader in detail. While we touched on their positive contributions, interestingly, considerable emphasis was placed on the leader’s weaknesses and failures. In some cases, the recognition of their work and the magnitude of what was achieved was either minimized or overshadowed by something negative also associated with their legacy. We discussed Mother Teresa’s work as a Roman Catholic nun and whether her contributions were noteworthy. She is someone who chose to spend most of her life living with those in extreme poverty and founded the order, “The Missionaries of Charity,” to help those in need. She has received worldwide recognition and numerous honors for her work, including the Nobel Peace Prize; she donated the prize money to those in poor health and impoverished. The Vatican has recommended her for sainthood. If Mother Teresa’s work can be considered questionable in terms of societal impact, then any person who is thinking about becoming a leader should be warned about the responsibility of the role and the criticism that goes along with it.

While a leadership role can be highly desirable and come with perks such as status, it is not easy work. Any person contemplating a leader position should be given a warning label about the role:

warning label

While being a leader sounds depressing, remember, that is what warning labels do. These labels are designed to alert individuals about unforeseen risks and consequences.

How does one withstand the pressure of being in a leadership position? Again, that is where a “leadership warning label” can be of assistance. Warning labels also provide advice and counsel on what to do when those unanticipated results occur. Here are a few suggestions to consider from experts and thought leaders from the field of leadership.


Key Tips to Remember When the Going Gets Tough as a Leader

Mission. Every leader should have a mission. Be clear about what you want to accomplish in the role. Specifically, what outcomes do you want to achieve and what legacy do you want to leave? This is what authentic leaders do. Leadership researchers Shamir and Eilam say authentic leaders engage in leadership because have a mission to promote; they are interested in making a difference. Having a mission will enable you to remain focused on the outcome you want to achieve and be a source of energy when criticism may be at its highest and support is minimal to non-existent.

Strengths. Know your talents and how you can use them effectively in the role. The Gallup organization has been instrumental in building the movement of helping individuals lead with their strengths. The original thought leader behind the strengths movement is Peter Drucker; he often spoke about the importance of leveraging strengths. In his book, “The Effective Executive,” he explained, “The effective executive makes strength productive. He knows that one cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all of the available strengths – the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one’s own strengths. These strengths are the true opportunities. To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization.”

For any action you need to perform, use your strengths and the strengths of others to accomplish the task. This will help you increase the chances for a successful outcome and achieve the intended results. Individuals also feel productive when they utilize their strengths. If the going gets tough, you need the team to remain committed to seeing the project through to completion. If others’ confidence in you begins to waver or you find you are being criticized, remember your strengths and use them. Or take this as an opportunity to focus on further building the relationships with constituents and figure out what is needed to gain their support. Your strengths will also be a source of confidence for you and help you remain bullish about your goals.

Listen to the Naysayers. You are extremely passionate about your mission and are excited about the potential positive outcomes. You work tirelessly to help others understand the vision and you have outlined a detailed plan on what is needed from everyone in order to achieve the desired result. Your energy and enthusiasm is infectious and you have mobilized the team towards the direction of the goal. Despite this effort, you find that not only are some folks not onboard, but they appear to be working against you. This can be puzzling, if not downright frustrating.

When I worked as a HR practitioner, we often associated this kind of behavior to cancer. Why? Because of the severity of the behavior and the harm that can potentially result if the behavior, like cancer cells, proliferates and that negativity spreads to others. Folks that engage in this kind of behavior are considered an out-group. Out-group members refer to those individuals in a group or organization who do not identify themselves as part of the larger group. Leadership theorist Peter Northouse says out-group members are individuals who are disconnected and not fully engaged in working toward the goals of the group

Needless to say, it is tempting to ignore these folks or perhaps criticize their actions and behaviors. However, that choice breeds even more contention because it does not help you address the problem. The effects of an out-group can be damaging, therefore you as the leader need to contain them and actually figure out how to engage them. One of the most effective strategies for working with an out-group is to listen to what they have to say. Rather than avoid them, listen intently with the purpose of understanding from their perspective. In “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey refers to this as empathic listening, where the focus of your listening efforts is to understand, not to be understood.

Listening is a pivotal step in bridging the gap with the out-group so they no longer feel disconnected. If you are successful at their feeling heard, then you are prepared to take the next step. What will it take to engage them? Ask them so they can tell you. Determine how you can integrate their input and establish the synergies that exist between them and the in-group. While this requires an investment on your part, your efforts will lead you toward building one cohesive group.

Followership. When it comes to leadership, the emphasis is often placed on the leader. Still, the leader needs the cooperation of those they lead in order to be successful. Well, how hard can that be? All the leader has to do is tell people what to do and they will do what the leader says. Right? Ask any leader if they have ever given a directive and later learned that it was not followed. Many leaders will tell you they have had this occur often.

Without followership, there can be no leadership. So what does a leader need to do in order to gain cooperation from their followers and be successful at the leader-follower relationship. Make sure your actions as a leader meet these basic criteria:

  1. Understand what followers expect and need from you as their leader.
  2. Demonstrate open communicate and transparency.
  3. Provide a clear vision and define success.
  4. Place emphasis on partnership and promote mutual success.
  5. Encourage feedback, praise and recognition.

Failing to recognize the importance of followership and addressing their needs is a common pitfall amongst leaders. When you value your followers, they will commit to the vision and do their part to help it become realized. In his book “The Courageous Follower,” Ira Chaleff writes, “…the key to effective leadership is effective followership, which occurs when followers vigorously support the vision and mission of the organization.” When you as the leader are having a tough day at the office, you want to know that those you lead still have unwavering support for the mission and what needs to be accomplished.

Warning labels for leadership could be a handy reference tool. They would not only help leaders prepare for what to expect in the role, but also provide leaders with useful advice when they face those unexpected consequences. While leading others can be demanding and represents a significant responsibility, the work is definitely gratifying.

As a leader you have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others and your work will be recognized and appreciated.

Steel thumbnailBarbara Steel is a manager with Deloitte Consulting and a co-author of How to Be Exceptional. She is also a student in the Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership, for senior executives.



Caution Photo used via Flickr with Creative Commons licensing. Photo credit Craig Rodway.

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