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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Get Out Of Your Own Way: Leadership In The Real World

I wrote in my last article that our organisations are broken – and they’re breaking our people. Our blogs have the full series here.

Bureaucratic, unnecessary rules and processes, the need for control, a lack of trust, needless work deadlines, poor communication and job insecurity. (1)

‘I once had a client who was subject to a barrage of constant idiocy at work in a giant corporation. She was a sensible, honest person who withstood a difficult life and who genuinely wished to contribute and work in a manner commensurate to her good sense. It is, of course, the case that being required to do stupid things is demoralising. No sensible person could remain motivated to put in effort anywhere such as her workplace where absurdities were constantly occurring that made her feel weak. She asked me, is this a case where enough is enough? When and where do we stop? She very much wished to escape from the situation.’ (2) 😑

Sounds normal - 16% of people fully engaged at work. One in five managers engaged. The others - stressed, demotivated, bored. Pretty bad. (3)

‘The pandemic has made many people wonder whether companies need a different kind of leadership to manage the situation, a question we might not be asking if there wasn’t a leadership crisis to begin with.’ (4)

Is this all that difficult?

After all, the one sure thing we know about leadership is there’s tons of material out there on the subject. Hundreds of books, articles and surveys. The topic’s been done to death.

Sometimes (most times), however, it seems that all this ‘stuff’ has been written by people who’ve studied from afar – and have never led anybody or anything in their lives.

Thousands of words written on the subject – and it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve misunderstood leadership and how to develop leaders, all together.

😴 It goes like this:

  • ‘Draw up a list of the skills and attributes (competencies) that a successful leader needs to develop. Complete an assessment and work on the weaker areas. Leadership competencies like: proactivity, vision, tenacity, business awareness, communication, trustworthiness, team work, customer focus.

  • Score 1-5 on the competencies you choose. Add the scores up if you want and track your total as you develop into the ‘complete leader.’ (8 competencies, maximum score 40, get to 38.5 and you’ll be a true ‘titan of leadership’).

(Hold on – we’ve thought of some more: authenticity, innovation, strategy, presentation skills, decision -making, leadership presence, vulnerability) 🙃.

Take your pick. Leadership competencies, like the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie - there are hundreds out there waiting for you. (5)

Thank you leadership ‘experts’ - leaders exhibit definable, consistent and measurable qualities. Brilliant – because the one piece of advice you’ll get in your career is to ‘grow your leadership.’

Leadership ‘experts’ - divorced from reality - when we get back to planet Earth the theories, frameworks and models fall apart. If leadership is so easy, there would be more good leaders.

It’s time to speak out about the kind of pseudoscience that many corporate managers regard as valid.(6)

Leaders don’t all exhibit the same competencies plucked out of the air. They achieve success in their own ways. We don’t see the best leaders trying to round themselves out, or develop competencies in areas they have none. Instead, we see them trying to make the best of what they have.

For every competency on the list, we can think of a leader in the real world who doesn’t have it. What does it mean if items on the list are optional?

When you take any of the definitions of leadership and try and locate them in the real world, you encounter exception upon exception. The very least we can say is that if there is some magical list of competencies, plenty of leaders are doing plenty of leading without many of them.’(7)

So, where do we go from here?

On 22 August 2015, 20000 people turned out to hear Donald Trump at a rally in Alabama - the largest political rally in the USA. The cameras captured the crowd – thousands of enthusiastic followers, waving banners and flags. (8)

And it’s here we find a clue to a different way of looking at leadership - that extends far beyond politics:

A leader is someone who has followers – plain and simple - and the way to judge whether someone is an effective leader isn’t by assessing them against abstract competencies – but whether anyone else is truly following them.

Or as the ‘Harvard Business Review’ puts it:

There is no leader without at least one follower—that’s obvious. Yet the modern leadership industry is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all. It’s long overdue for leaders to acknowledge the importance of understanding their followers better. (9)

And the implications are subtle but profound:

‘We need to stop using these models. Stop the meaningless questions of how to move your ‘effective communication’ score from 3.8 to 3.9. Stop figuring out why your peers gave you a 4.1 on strategy when your boss gave you 3.1. Stop debating whether its ‘authenticity’ or ‘impact.’ Stop all these endless distractions.’ (10)

Instead let’s find out what it’s like to be one of your followers; their experience, feelings and how your actions shape them.

Let’s speak to real people in the real world. Find out what it’s like to stand in their shoes.

Find out what it’s like to be a follower led by you:

  • Do you give them confidence in the future?

  • Do you make them feel part of a successful team?

  • Do they feel part of something bigger and worthwhile?

  • Do you challenge them to develop their strengths?

  • Do you make them feel as though their contribution matters?

  • Do you make them feel valued?

  • Do you recognise their uniqueness?

  • Do you ensure they know what is expected of them?

We spend a massive amount of money on leadership and leadership development training. In the US alone, McKinnsey put the figure (unbelievably) at $14 billion per year. (11)

Perhaps given our understanding of the subject we might have been better going to the front door of our offices and throwing the money into the street?

At least then the wind might have blown some of the money back onto our doorstep - and we would have been better off as a result.

Final thoughts from everyone's favourite inspirational leader, David Brent:

"My proudest moment here wasn't when I increased profits by 17%, or cut expenditure without losing a single member of staff. No. It was a young Greek guy, first job in the country, hardly spoke a word of English, but he came to me and he went 'Mr. Brent, will you be the Godfather to my child?'. Didn't happen in the end. We had to let him go, he was rubbish. He was rubbish."


  1. Burn Out, It Can’t Be Ignored Any Longer, EGM Blog

  2. "Rule 5: ‘Don’t Do Things You Hate.’, ‘Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life.’ J Peterson"

  3. See Business Gallup Report Finds Australian Workers Stressed and Disengaged; 13 November 2018

  4. Why Leadership Has to Change After Covid -19, Forbes Magazine: 11th February 2021

  5. The Birds, 1963

  6. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson

  7. 9 Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham

  8. Trump holds largest rally yet in Alabama, CBS News 22 August 2015

  9. What Every Leader Needs to Know About Followers: Harvard Business Review; December 2007

  10. 9 Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham

  11. Why Leadership Development Programmes Fail, January 2014

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