Leadership : Of Good Kings and Bad Leadership

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotive service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

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Several years ago, when I was running a multi-state sales territory for a large parts manufacturer and distributor, I had a conversation with one of my fellow regional managers. To be honest he was talking about his marriage but the gist of what he said stuck with me as it might apply to leadership and how we interact with others. His contention was that in his marriage he was king and that to whatever degree he could be a “good king” determined the success of his marriage.

He maintained that he was the boss in his house, that he made all the tough decisions and that the household ran as he decided it should. As a good king he allowed his wife and children their freedoms and was both generous and encouraging in his interactions with them. He was the enforcer and disciplinarian. He was the judge and jury and his word was final. As a good king he was fair and honest and willing to listen but solitary in his status and authority. He was king.

At the time I remember thinking that if I came home and tried to establish the monarchy in my house, the chances were very good that I would end up seriously injured, crownless and suddenly single. As I move from the world of marital relations, decidedly unqualified to comment, I see similar situations in the arena of leadership all the time. I think all of this might come down to respect, but casting yourself as something apart and superior would seem a great way to turn your people off and assure their determined rejection or resistance to anything you say or might attempt to do.

In general people are very willing to respect and follow anyone who appears to be willing and seemingly capable of moving them forward. Certainly a perception that an individual has paid his dues, is willing to share the hardships or has the background will go a long way toward acceptance, but that respect animal is fickle and likes to be fed every day. An air of superiority might make for a tough journey into a quest without hope. I have always been of the opinion that respect has to be earned. One of the best ways to get respect as a leader is to give it.

Everyone (well, almost everyone) wants to believe that they contribute, that their efforts are important and that they are vital to our success. Our job as leaders is to foster beliefs such as these and do everything humanly possible to develop a sense of pride, a sense of team and a sense of mission in all that we do. Though we have to guard against arrogance or cockiness in our employees, making them feel important, making them feel that their contributions are vital to our success is the best way to assure their continued strong efforts which then gives you the opportunity to appeal to their sense of pride in assigning additional tasks and setting higher standards. They feel part of something special, something significant and will work hard to maintain their status.

This is a very sneaky form of motivation in that we are appealing to pride and ego but people usually go very willingly and tend to bring their best efforts with them. An alternative approach here is taking your employees efforts for granted, though I can guarantee that pride in performance or higher standards will not be part of that conversation. Survival might make it onto the priority list or become your most immediate goal.

Merit and not entitlement is the best way to assure that your people are willing to follow your lead. They need to see and feel your care and concern for them and believe in the journey you would take together. This is just as true for a business owner as it is for a manager or anyone else who takes on a leadership role. The days where employment opportunities are severely limited are long gone and our continued misbehaviors as leaders will haunt us with low morale, high turnover and low productivity. Can you afford this? On the other hand, if we build a sense of pride in our employees, if we praise them and recognize them for superior effort, we will be able to count on them to be there for us and to improve and grow as we improve and grow.

We are leaders only if our people are willing to follow. It is entirely possible to badger and hound and frighten your employees into doing the things you ask but I would question how long they will work for you, how willing they will be to go the extra mile for you and if they will be too scared of displeasing you to show initiative or try to take on additional responsibility. I much prefer them confident and capable and motivated. I praise them.

For some of you, the temptation of status and standing will be too great and you will seek to separate yourself from those who toil in your service. I caution you here; leadership loses impact when shouted from the heights and accountability is hard to enforce if you can’t remember your players names. Good kings and bad leaders seem a drag on excellence. The days of kings are thankfully gone.

Ó Copyright Brian Canning 2007

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