LEGAL: Leadership should not be a popularity contest

As we gear up for another presidential election, we once again see many of the candidates matching their leadership on issues to the public opinion polls. Some believe that is necessary to get elected to the nation’s highest office (and John McCain’s early show
ing in the race might be proof of this). But it’s no way to run a business.

Leading a business is not a popularity contest. Many important decisions are very unpopular. The leader who tempers decisions because they run contrary to the popular view promotes mediocrity. It takes bold moves to lead a business to excellence.

Many times decisions are unpopular because they involve change. Change makes people uncomfortable and is often resisted for that reason alone, but it is the lifeblood of bold businesses. Managing to minimize change or cater to the change-adverse people in an organization assures mediocrity.

Wise decisions sometimes run contrary to accumulated facts. Those empirical types who live life largely in a world of facts and knowledge often fail to see wisdom for what it is and resist embracing it. The wise leader considers these facts but, in the end, leads with the heart. This wisdom is necessary to guide the way through facts and statistics that can be twisted to support either side of the debate.

Although popularity isn’t important, decisions must be perceived as fundamentally fair in order for a leader to be effective. Fairness breeds respect and confidence. People must have confidence in their leader’s wisdom and fairness in order to have the trust to follow.

Servant leadership is a style that many businesses and business leaders find effective. By this I mean that leaders serve those who are being led.

The concept of servant leadership traces back to the time of Jesus Christ, who is said to have washed the feet of his disciples. Kautilya, the great strategic thinker from ancient India, wrote about servant leadership in his 4th century book “Arthashastra.” Robert Greenleaf introduced the modern concept of servant leadership in 1970 in “The Servant as Leader.”

This upside-down leadership style emphasizes collaboration, trust, and individual dignity and worth. And the results are unachievable with the more traditional leadership models. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.

The motivation to embrace a servant leadership model springs not from the desire for power, but from the desire to better serve. It is this leadership that people desire. It serves them best and helps them grow.

In making bold decisions, though, don’t ignore the importance of buy-in. Clearly the leader has the authority to make the decisions. But if there is no buyin, the decisions will be undone by a lack of passionate followers. The followers may go through the motions but without buy-in, the decisions will fail from unenthusiastic execution.

It is tricky getting buy-in to unpopular decisions. For this important buy-in to evolve, the decisions must be perceived as fair and just. These decisions must also appear “right” for the organization, not for the leader.

Inviting input is important to achieve buy-in, but that input cannot unduly dictate the direction of the decision. On the other hand, input cannot be ignored when it is given or else the act of gathering it becomes an insult to those who wasted their time participating.

Turning a blind eye to popularity doesn’t mean that there is a place for ego in the chair of leadership. While leaders must be strong and assertive, they also must be humble. They must lead by example to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Hypocrites make ineffective leaders and are often despised by their followers.

Effective leadership inspires people. Servant leadership comes from the heart, with all of the emotion and passion that follows.

People are being asked to give a majority of their waking hours to their vocation, and they want to be inspired and led there. Most people want to follow a wise, passionate, trusted leader. It is up to you to light this fire that waits to burn brightly within your people.

Millard is chairman of the Business Department for the Barnes & Thornburg LLP law firm and a past president of the Venture Club of Indiana. He can be reached at 231-7803.

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