This week, after eighteen days of increasingly large and noisy demonstrations in the streets of Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was chased from office. His assailants were unarmed, but for their numbers and voices. In the end, Mubarak was taken down by the same fundamental physics principle that threatens every single organizational leader: The simple fact that there are more of “them” than there are of you.
When gross leadership failure occurs, as it did in Egypt, people find a way to unplug and overcome. The resistance usually starts low and slow, as individuals, having decided privately that they will no longer follow the leader, begin to even the playing field by withholding discretionary effort, taxes, or other voluntary but expected contributions. From there, even in the most civil and usually well-mannered workplaces (even churches), the size of the “crowd” and the level of organized resistance accretes, until large groups of people begin throwing sand into the gears of commerce. Eventually… yes, every single time, the leader becomes “followerless.”
So, what to do? How does one avoid getting Mubarak’ed?
- We must be ever mindful of the fact that leadership is less about us, more about others, and even more about maintaining a common and compelling sense of purpose and direction. Note: Trite expressions and buzz phrases, no matter how well spun they are don’t get it. Nor does faking the interest in others part.
- Though it may seem counterintuitive, leadership is not, repeat, NOT about winning a popularity contest or avoiding difficult positions. We’re called upon at times to enforce high standards, to deny a request by the majority, to say, “I appreciate the effort, but that’s not good enough” or to tell an old friend that they must change or leave. President Ronald Reagan, whose life we recently celebrated, exemplified this in August, 1981 when he summarily fired over 5,000 air traffic controllers for participating in an unlawful work stoppage. Formerly the President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, Reagan certainly wasn’t anti-union. An important line had been crossed by government employees and it was essential that he address it swiftly and strongly.
- We must remember why, at birth, each of us was issued two ears and only one mouth. Had Hosni Mubarak begun listening to his people (while they were still “his people”) 5 years, 6 months, or maybe even just 3 weeks ago, this situation might well have ended differently.
Leadership is simple, but it can be hard. As highlighted in our new book, Rebooting Leadership, we now have a generation (indeed four successive “classes”) of young leaders who, due to circumstances beyond their control, have been thrust into supervisory positions with practically no preparation, beyond watching The Apprentice and other tv reality shows. It is important for those of us responsible for their coaching and mentoring to advise and set an example for them which makes clear the facts that followership is necessary but fragile, and that leadership is not a post, but a special trust.
A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book, Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows