‘Second-rate’ leadership

What if a person never directly experienced a ‘great’ leader in the course of their career?

In such circumstances wouldn’t it be likely that such a person would use the ‘best’ leader they encountered as their personal benchmark for ‘great’ leadership?

Yet, unknown to them, there is significant headroom beyond that benchmark.

One of the privileges of having had such a long and varied career is that I saw, and continue to see, a number of really exceptional leaders. These people all conduct themselves in very different ways but ultimately they all, without exception, get the people they lead to perform way beyond what they themselves think is possible.

By way of analogy I once worked as a senior leader in two schools. In the first school the quality of school musical and dramatic performance was quite exceptional. Everyone recognised it and it set a benchmark that was constantly being shifted upwards on an annual basis.

On arriving at the second school I was informed that this school also had a great reputation for school musical performances. Parents, staff and the children themselves all repeated this mantra. And then I watched a performance of the school show. Stumbling, ‘amateur’ (in the worst sense of the word), and frankly embarrassing don’t begin to cover it. Yet such was the collective absence of any other standard of performance that everyone was happy.

Of course, the children were doing everything asked of them – the difficulty came from that very fact. Not enough was being asked.

This phenomenon carries over into the world of leadership where people are too frequently content with second-rate leadership simply because they have never experienced anything else.

Great leaders raise personal aspirations beyond the self-limiting vision of what is thought to be possible. There are as many ways to do this as there are leaders but each one of them has an exceptionally determined view that there are no limits to performance.

However, I keep coming across people who have a self-limiting vision of what constitutes ‘great’ leadership. Not only is that damaging for those whom would be led but it places a colossal millstone around the neck of anyone who has aspirations to be a leader themselves.

A significant part of our work at Ceannas, particularly with aspiring senior executive leaders, is to help them remove that millstone and come to appreciate that their own personal benchmark for ‘great’ leadership needs recalibration. By enabling these individuals to recognise that the impact they can have is way beyond what they ever thought possible we create the headroom for improvement that was otherwise missing.

It has been fascinating to observe such leaders create new horizons for their own practice but it is not something that comes without direct challenge, deep examination of one’s own experience, and a willingness to enter previously unexplored territory.

However, the return from such courageous behaviour yields a return that can match or surpass any accumulation of leadership knowledge and techniques.

So ask yourself this question:

“How do I know what great leadership looks like?”

And before you rush to name leaders from history, business, sport or politics remember that our personal benchmarks are established much closer to home. If you struggle to come up with a ‘great’ leader then perhaps, just perhaps, you need to check if there’s an unseen and self-limiting weight around your neck.

“What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate, that you don’t need love when you do or that you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.” Doris Lessing