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Leadership: Whose Responsibility Is It? 

Leadership: Whose Responsibility Is It?

By: Annie McKee. Leadership.

It seems obvious that the senior executives in our businesses and organizations need to understand how to lead. But in recent years, we have seen far too many examples of businesspeople failing miserably as leaders. For example, in the corruption and scandals at Enron and WorldCom, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the subprime mortgage debacle, you can see abuse of power, incompetency magnified by greed, major flaws in character, and a breakdown in values and ethics. These scandals—and the people behind them—ruined lives and tipped entire economies into recession and disarray.

Here’s the catch, though: It takes more than a few bad apples to do this kind of damage. It is true that in most cases, there were only a few architects of the fraud scheme and only a few people involved directly in unethical practices. However, many people were either indirectly involved or could have seen the signs that something was gravely wrong. So, whose responsibility is it to make sure that people wield power responsibly, that they enact good leadership, and that they uphold ethical standards?

To answer that question, let’s move a little closer to home, to the kinds of experiences many of us have had with leaders. Think about the jobs you have held, the teams you have been part of, and the schools you have attended. Chances are, in all of these situations, you had opportunities to see leadership up close. How many bosses, team leaders, teachers, or counselors have you had who were excellent leaders? How many were average or even bad leaders? Most of the time, when we ask people in organizations this question, they remember far more average or bad leaders than good. That simply isn’t acceptable today. Our businesses, institutions, and communities require all of us to lead—and to lead well. The world is faced with great opportunities and even greater challenges. Therefore, all of us need to learn how to use power responsibly, how to apply our skills, and how to live by our values and ethics.

Now, think about your own behavior at work, on teams, and in your community. You have had opportunities to lead people, either formally or informally. How much attention did you pay to learning how to use your power effectively so you could influence others positively? Did you consciously develop leadership skills? Did you ensure that you lived your values consistently? If you are like most people, you had every intention of doing all of the above, and you probably worked hard at being a good leader. Yet, maybe because of the pressures of the job, or because of the difficulty in “studying” your own behavior, you paid less attention to improving your leadership than you might have wanted. Or, maybe you noticed situations—or were even part of situations—that made you uncomfortable and were not in line with your values, but you didn’t speak up. This happens to all of us at one time or another. The key to great leadership is recognizing that each one of us has the obligation to use power responsibly, study our own leadership behavior, and seek to improve and constantly stand up for the values and ethics that guide us and our organizations.

Lawton Fitt is a prominent member of the Thomson-Reuters board of directors, and she is well known for her financial brilliance and excellent leadership. She can teach us some valuable lessons about what it means to lead today.

We All Need to Become Great Leaders

As Lawton Fitt knows, in today’s challenging business world, we do not have the luxury to assign certain behaviors and values to leaders alone. In successful organizations, everyone understands the link between their jobs and the company’s strategy. In addition, because the best organizations are more complicated and must be more adaptable, far more people need to motivate others, to paint a compelling picture of the future, to engage people’s passion, to build enthusiasm, and to direct people’s energy.

Lawton Fitt Lawton Fitt’s early career was stunning. At a very young age, she became a valued member of the Goldman Sachs mergers and acquisitions team, and she soon went on to become one of the most successful leaders in the company. She describes great leadership this way:

Some people believe that business is
 an instrumental exchange. I don’t agree. People bring their lives to work. As a leader, you need to create an organization that has a vision and mission that people can feel proud of— and emotionally engaged with. You just can’t shy away from this. An emotional connection to the organization and to work is very important and deeply satisfying to people. It’s what makes people want to do their best, to take decisions that they, and everyone, can be proud of.

And the best leaders are human. They have deep self-knowledge, they learn from experience, and they are willing to share what they know. They care about the long- term outcomes of their actions—especially when it comes to people. If you are just trying to take the hill without considering the consequences for people, you won’t wear well as a leader. People may take the first hill with you, maybe even the second. But after that, if they see that you don’t care about them and don’t respect them, they just won’t  follow you.

Dissonant Environment?

People in all levels of an organization are faced with new challenges regularly, and they need to know how to respond. Take change, for example—change is everywhere, and it’s constant in organizations. A manager who expects continuity and stability simply will not be effective. Similarly, managers who rely on leaders to “do the right thing” while they themselves adopt any means at hand to achieve their goals will risk making unethical decisions, treating people badly, and creating an unhealthy, dissonant environment that does not support organizational effectiveness.

Leadership Is Learned

The good news is that you can learn how to be a great leader. Despite what you might have heard, leaders are not born—they are made. We learn how to lead as a result of our experiences, as well as by deliberately studying how to manage power and influence, how to improve our leadership skills, and how to attend to our values so we can support ethical decisions and actions. Managers and employees can—and must— become leaders by seeking out learning experiences and developing the abilities that support vision, inspiration, and influence. This takes courage. It’s always easier to point at “them”—those faraway leaders who can be credited or blamed for everything. In reality, though, there’s no such thing as “them.” It’s just “us.”

Still, many people protect themselves from the personal and career risks that real leadership can bring by ignoring their personal responsibility for learning to lead— even though the payoff for getting out of the comfort zone and learning to lead can be huge. One recent study examined two investment banks prior to the financial crisis of 2008. One of these banks weathered the subprime mortgage situation reasonably well, whereas the other essentially went out of business. The company that did not survive was known to have a rigid culture and a tendency to protect star employees from failure. In the case of the surviving firm, however, the bank’s method of exposing employees to new situations outside their comfort zones, taking risks while attending to personal and company values, encouraging collaborative behavior, and discouraging the “star” mentality resulted in people being able to pull together and withstand an extremely difficult period of unprecedented change and unpredictability. In short, this bank’s employees learned to be good leaders.

Today more than ever before, everyone needs to learn how to lead. That’s what this article is about: How you—as a person, employee, and/or manager—can become a great leader. To start, you will discover three secrets to becoming an outstanding leader:

  • Emotional and social competence: The secret to effective leadership
  • Power: The secret to influential leadership
  • Ethics: The secret to responsible leadership

You will learn how to explain leadership, with a special focus on the idea of transformational leadership. You will then learn how can support excellent leadership. Finally, you will discover what you can do to ensure that you are a great leader both at work and in life.