Leaders need to think beyond themselves and engage in conversations with their employees or subordinates.

I recently had a 1 on 1 with the director of my group and was recognized for some of the points of leadership I am taking with my project and cross business unit information technology group collaboration initiatives. After the meeting I thought to myself what leadership actually was, what makes a successful leader, and why it is good to be a leader.

The one key observation I had that prompted this whole post was the communication model he uses with the group. When communicating with subordinates there are two models of communication: the transmission model (like a lecture) where one talks at you, which is typical of most communications for higher leadership positions. Alas the consequence of that model is that people often don’t listen to what is being communicated and only 20% of information is retained. The other model is an exchange model (a conversation-like method) that is egalitarian in nature, rather than the former hierarchical method where one speaks with you, rather than at you. This model is about the exchange of information rather than the transmission of information. As a result of this method when people communicate via the exchange method more than 50% of the information is retained and if subordinates in turn use the exchange communication model with their subordinates 75% percent of the information is retained.

There’s an argument that leadership can either be about a positions or about a processes such that there is some degree of control generated by your position, but it’s also worth considering leadership is to due to a process. It could be argued that anyone who persuades anyone else to do something they might not have normally done is taking a leadership role.

Typically we find a correlation of power to great leaders, however I assert that power is not a possession but a relationship; it’s not so much a cause but a consequence.

Example:

If your boss says jump what tends to happen is you think to yourself if you should jump or not. Your boss can’t make you jump—there’s almost no instance where someone can coerce you into doing something, you always have choice.

What the subordinates do is very influential to establish if the leader has power, such that if a leader says jump, and the subordinates jump, THEN the leader has power; not before, but after the event. Power is a consequence rather than the cause of subordinate action, which is a complete reversal of our conventional wisdom and assumptions of power. Because of this, leaders must negotiate to get subordinates on board. A great leader must be modest and not arrogant and typically successful businesses are led by modest leaders.

The issue with arrogant people is that they tend to assume that they are an extreme version of everyone else, i.e. what motivates them motivates other people, and they are simply better at what they do. However, what motivates the leader does not always motivate the subordinate and here lies the power of negotiation (i.e. “I’m the boss. if you do it I’ll pay you”, or “if we do it together we might achieve something”).

Since most leaderships are set up to be hierarchal (that is every node is connected to one parent node with the exception of the root node) or heterarchal (any node can be connected to any surrounding nodes, like a fish net) leaders need to be constrained by their subordinates who are constructive dissenters, that is people who have the best interest of the organization at heart, but are able to dissent from the main ideals of the organization or the decision making of that organization rather than destructive consenters (“yes” people).

Unfortunately most organizations are full of destructive consenters as apposed to constructive dissenters which are the thorns in people’s sides that are necessary to have in order to keep the organization from going in the wrong direction.

To be a great leader you need to surround yourself with a group of people that are willing to tell you when you are going wrong, which is the opposite than that which is typically seen. No leader is perfect (the assumption is that all leaders are flawed. By definition we’re all flawed to some extent therefore all leaders must be flawed, therefore they cannot be perfect leaders; they must be imperfect and must make mistakes). However the problem does not lie with the imperfection of the leader, but rather the problem lies with the leader’s decision making—how do you stop a leader from making too many mistakes that threaten the organization?

Typically, as leaders advance the hierarchy, they tend to assume that they are probably the person most equipped to take the decisions of the organization and therefore the advice they take from others will not be adequate and therefore they will take more decisions on their own. Or, they surround themselves with sycophants (yes people). As a consequence the trend of good decision making recedes as you go up organizations unless you find a group of people that are happy to tell you when you’re going wrong and you don’t punish them for that.