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Power doesn’t make you a leader, caring does

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by Graeme

A few months ago I was at the Manchester Lowry theatre watching a performance of “Lord of the Flies” — it’s a hugely popular story that touches on controversial topics of human nature, and the different motives people have when leading a group. It got me thinking: 

What really is a leader?

It turns out plenty of people have had the same question, as seen in the very popular images below that resonate with many:

The pictures highlight how a real leader wants to work alongside his team, pulling them up to his level. In contrast, there also exist people in positions of power who seem to be leaders, but actually are giving people orders with more focus on helping themselves than their teammates. 

If these ‘bosses’ are then mistaken for leaders by their juniors, before you know it, a culture of personal gain can be created where teamwork is no longer the focus. The story of Lord of the Flies really helped me put this into perspective and understand why a ‘boss’ can be perceived as a leader (even when their morality and actions don’t match that of one), and the implications that can arise because of it.

Lord of the Flies

Leader vs dictator

Lord of the Flies is a story by William Golding and it starts off with bunch of schoolboys stranded on a remote island, trying to recreate the civility they’ve left behind. It focuses on the behaviours of two contrasting characters — Ralph and Jack, who are both ‘leaders’ of the group at different times. 

In the beginning, Ralph is elected by the rest of the boys to be leader because of his likeable personality and desire to help the group by building shelters so everyone can be safe. He works to the group’s benefit, so is in my opinion, much like the leader portrayed in the images above. In contrast, Jack always has a desire to dominate the group so that he can have control and satisfy his love of power. He cunningly uses force and deceit to lure the boys out of the civility Ralph is creating, into his primitive tribe where he goes on to become the self-titled chief.

(Image: Jack vs Ralph)

Interestingly, Jack only values the boys he finds useful in carrying out the plans he has for his own success. He looks down at and ignores those he doesn’t agree with. Maybe it’s obvious, but watching the story made me notice how characters such as these are present everywhere.

There’s no “I” in team

People like Jack and Ralph are fairly common in reality, often appearing in positions of influence, which can be a problem — especially in a workplace. If you read the story, you’ll probably agree that Jack is, by Rhys Newman’s definition, a dickhead:

a person whose ambition for themselves or their own career is greater than their ambition for the project or team.

This type of person can easily poison a collaborative environment due to their focus on themselves, shown in Rhys next comments:

If you have a Dickhead in the studio then the entire environment, the productivity, the creativity, and the product decisions themselves skew away from the product or team goals.

There may still be great outcomes but they’re certainly not team driven, so how do these people ever get perceived as leaders?

The rise of the imposter leader

I think it’s down to the ‘imposter leaders’ sharing similar traits to real leaders, such as their admirable drive and ability to influence others. A key difference though, is that where a leader influences through inspiring, the imposter does so through instilling fear in others, often utilizing their title and status. This rings true in Golding’s writing too when he portrays Jack to have learned how to exert control over others from being head boy at his school. Jack goes on to use this title often (and irrelevantly) to declare his right to be leader.

Regardless of their motives though, the favourable characteristics of such people help them rise into positions of power, from which they can dictate the culture of the place. This is where there’s possibility of danger, as summed up in this great quote from Gruenter and Whitaker:

The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate

If the leaders of an organisation support certain behaviours, then those behaviours will dictate the way things are, and eventually what leadership means to them — which may not be a bad thing, since it is a shared norm.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

When creating a healthy leadership culture, it’s all about choosing people that fit in, not necessarily their skills. For example, Google doesn’t care about your status as president of the high school chess club —  they value people who choose the right time to lead, and also know when to take a step back. Laszlo Bock of Google’s People Operations said:

we don’t want you to be the sort of person who’s jumping in the captain’s chair all the time, we want you to jump in when there’s a problem, but even more importantly, step away when the problem or the need for expertise goes away.

For me, that’s spot on, and so are the boss/leader pictures at the top of this post. You can have people with the all the skills in the world, but they need true leadership and a positive culture to create their best work that they themselves will be proud of. And finally, you can have the most insignificant title in the office, and still be a leader — better than any boss.

Thanks for reading, happy easter

Have any thoughts?