The US presidential race has officially started. The Republican Party has kicked off its search for a nominee with, as is its custom, the Iowa caucus. The state – the size of England but with a population close to that of Wales – can now get back to normal as the coachloads of media and campaigners head off towards New Hampshire. The presidential hopefuls have spent weeks parading their winning smiles of perfect teeth, spending bucket loads of money, whilst trying to say little of real substance and make as few gaffes as possible. I’m not sure what the caucus members, or “gatherings of neighbours” as they’re sometimes called, made of it all but it made me think that frequently it is those who most want to be leaders who are often the least suitable. It takes a certain type of person to want to forgo privacy, and spend vast amounts of their wealth, all to chase the chance to take on a role dealing with seemingly intractable problems.
In organisations one frequently finds people “running for office”. So desperate are they to become the leader that they spend their time plotting and scheming, surrounding themselves with true believers to whom they offer preferment. Interestingly, these leaders in waiting often demonstrate the very lack of team playing that they demand in others. They also tend to become obsessed with being seen to do things. They measure their success by what they’ve done (sometimes changing things simply so that they can be seen to have changed something) rather than what they’ve achieved. Quick to blame and shame, and quick to point out the failings of others, for them leadership is more about their own status than ideological or strategic differences.
As one observes the eager beavers, in politics and in business, expending large amounts of energy chasing the dream of leadership, the truth is that deep down we all know that far from being born real leaders are made. It is circumstances that create leaders. Identikit high achievers who say the right things and do the right things with the sole aim of reaching the top often find themselves disappointed. Leadership is not about doing; it is about creating the environment in which things can be done. It is about nurturing, empowering, providing vision and about satisfying needs. In fact, it is all about giving and not about self.
Another point about true leadership is that there isn’t a particularly right way to do it. Each person needs to demonstrate it in their own way. However, what is important is consistency of behaviour. In the transparent world in which we live it is now more important than ever that there is a link between what is said and what is done. People listen to what their leaders say but, more importantly, they observe how they act. True leaders recognise that speeches may be important but it is how they behave that makes the real difference.
So as politicians and business executives jostle for position, beware the ones who say that they’ve got all the right answers. Watch out for the egotistical, and embrace the humble.