For forty years I have listened to people express deep pain because of their relationship with their boss. From research, we learn most people give politically correct reasons when asked, but they leave their jobs because of their boss. We learn that 70% of the global workforce is not fully engaged at work. Fifty-one percent of the managerial workforce is not fully engaged at work. These numbers testify to a fact we refuse to acknowledge. Holding a position does not make a person a leader: the majority of people in positions of authority, from top to bottom, do not know how to create an organization of engaged, productive people.
I have long recognized and talked about this fact, but in recent weeks I have listened to a number of people share their extreme pain. I recently met a mature 26-year-old. He said, “The two people who run the firm are great at the technical aspects of their work. They have no ability to lead so some of the young people try to lead from the bottom up. It is painful because the two authority figures are often offended and blow up what we do.”
It was a simple claim but it caused all such claims to crystalize in my head. There is an epidemic and we refuse to see it. While there are many great leaders, the norm in the organizational world is mediocre-to-bad management. We are so conditioned by convention that we do not expect to see positive leadership. When I present the concepts of positive leadership, there is always resistance. If there are 40 executives in a room, thirty-nine want to tell me of the constraints that make positive leadership impossible. Yet there is always at least one person like the one who spoke up last week.
In a recent classroom, as people were making excuses, one man declared, “My people love me and they will follow me anywhere. They love me because the purpose is always clear; I put the common good ahead of my ego; I treat them like equals; I listen; I am authentic and transparent; I do everything possible to create a positive culture so they can function as a great team; and I am not soft: I challenge them to be excellent always.”
This man was working in the same corporate culture as the others. Yet he was engaging in behaviors outside the culture. He was an exception, a positive deviant, a practitioner of positive leadership. This means that what the others declared impossible was possible. The problem is not in the constraining culture but rather in human fear and the lack of higher purpose and the unwillingness to learn how to confront the constraining culture. Toxic leadership and micro-management is not a necessity; it is an epidemic born of the fact that we do not know how to model or develop leaders.
We need a revolution. Technical expertise is important but not a sufficient justification for taking a position of authority. It is time to make a shift in our learning. Instead of accepting the norm, it is time to learn how to learn from excellence. In every organization we should be systematically examining the few great leaders and great units distributed across the hierarchy. We must use them to confront the excuses about external constraints. Every authority figure needs to have a practice theory of social excellence and be accountable for living the theory. It is time to end the tolerance of toxic leadership and the micro-management of any human being.
- When have you personally suffered because of poor leadership?
- What positive change would move you toward becoming a great leader?
- How can you help your people to learn to learn from excellence?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?