Why do otherwise smart, successful people suck as leaders?

And how can YOU avoid their fate?

“My people won’t follow me! They don’t do the tasks I assign them, they don’t take initiative on new issues! I often end up doing things myself, and it’s frustrating! I’m too stressed to babysit adults!”

When you call, does anyone answer?

This SOS came through during a conversation with a friend recently. I offered her a few thoughts on the issue that I thought were worth sharing more widely, especially as a follow up to my last post on leadership. But let me first describe my friend, because I think a lot of people will relate to her.

She’s done pretty well for herself, although she herself doesn’t think so, because she has her eyes on bigger things. And she’s achieved what she has because she’s a go-getter, get-it-done person. And you can bet your depreciating naira she didn’t get to where she is now by waiting around for people. She’s independent, and her ability to make things happen with sheer force of will and courage is her superpower.

Problem is, her superpower is also her kryptonite.

Because the exact same thing that has made her who she is, seems to keeps her back from being more. (Life’s a pot of beans, right?) And I see a lot of people just like my friend. They’re great at moving forward with things they care about, but they struggle to get others to do so. I have a number of friends like this, and many of them often express a desire to lead in settings where people just “do what they’re told.” I often kid them that they should join the army or something.

Seriously, though, this was a real problem for my friend. She wanted to get things moving and the stagnancy was a bummer. So I broke it down for her (and for you, if you’re like her)…

How a strength becomes a weakness…

My friend wanted to get on with the action. She had defined the goal, made a plan, got the action steps all lined up. Now if her “followers” would just get with the programme and do what they were told, this project could get off the ground and fly.

And she was confident about that because that’s the approach that’s worked all her life. Except she’s mostly worked solo. Turns out, she had a history of projects that ended up with her doing it all herself (when she was lucky, with maybe the help of some persistent soul). After all, she’d gotten here by herself anyway. Who needs a bunch of unreliable people to keep explaining the point to?

It’s not just her. Many people I know like this won’t work with people if they can help it, because human beings have the problem of being—well, human. They keep wanting to understand why they should do what you’re asking of them. I asked my friend:

“Okay, so let me ask: why should these guys take this as seriously as you do?”

“Because this project is important!”

“To you, yes.” I replied. “But have you tried to explain why it should matter to them?”

“What’s there to explain? It’s obvious that this is important, anyone can see that! They just don’t care!”

“Err… But people have their priorities, and you can’t fight that. Or, at least you shouldn’t—you don’t want anyone to fight yours, do you?”

Which brings me to the question of…

What exactly does it mean to lead?

I find that a lot of people think of leadership as getting people to make something happen. But if you think of leadership as John Maxwell famously proposed, that it’s really about influence, then it’s more about getting people to believe in your vision.

Now if you’re like my friend, I can almost put money on your response:

That’s semantics, abeg! Is it not still about the same goal?

Yes, it is. Still, there’s a subtle difference that produces very different approaches in the long run. One is focused on the object to be achieved and finds the people a distraction. The other focuses on the people and how to persuade them to want to achieve it.

My get-it-done type friends, whenever I tell them this, often respond: “Look, Ayomide, you can’t make everyone happy. You just have to stay focused on the goal.” Or like my friend: “I’m too stressed to babysit adults!”

Except, I never actually said anything about making everyone happy. Getting people on board means getting them to a) see where you want to take them and b) getting them to decide to come along. They don’t have to be happy. They just have to want to come. (That said, it helps if they’re happy.)

I know this whole talk of defining leadership might seem conceptual, but it has very practical implications. How we think of leadership will determine not just how we act as leaders, but even which leaders we look up to and learn from. It determines the kind of leaders we become. So allow me to offer another definition of leadership.

Leadership is about getting different people to agree on a common set of priorities.

And the minute you see it that way, you see something else. You see this…

Communication is the #1 tool in the leader’s toolbox.

And by communication, I don’t mean talking a lot. You can be an absolute introvert and rock at communication. (In fact, introverted leaders often do rock at communication.) By “communication,” I mean, you are willing to invest time and effort into getting people you follow to see your point of view.

And any smart leader will tell you the fastest way to get people to see your viewpoint is to invest in seeing theirs. Because it’s when you know what they want that you can offer yourself and your vision, not just in terms of what you want, but as a way to help them get what they want as well.

So no, communication is not about how much you talk. It’s about how much you see through each others’ eyes. And if you’re leading any group of people, you want to invest in that.

Now here’s the thing: every really great leader is (or was) a master of communication. (By “great leader,” I’m referring strictly to the amount of influence they wielded, not their moral standing) Some are just intuitively masters (like Trump?), while others taught themselves to master it. None was great apart from it.

Another interesting thing: leaders who don’t communicate with their people (unfortunately, many of our leaders in Nigeria and Africa are in this category) are stuck with having to use authority and sheer force to get things done. It works, but at the expense of the growth of these people. But you’ll notice something: they keep people in line by restricting communication among them also. It’s because they instinctively know something: if you insist on not talking to your people, someone else will. Actually, someone else almost always does.

“OK, fine, fine, I get it. So how do I communicate better? Like, practically?”

I thought you’d never ask. 😊

3 steps to communicating better.

This article is not the place to get into the nitty-gritty of communication and how it happens, but something definite that will help you.

  1. Identify one leader you really respect. (Preferably one you’ve already been trying to learn from or want to be like, but if you don’t have one, just pick one now.)
  2. Focus on how they communicate. My guess is, until now, you’ve focused on their strategy: what they do and how. Now I want you to start paying attention to how they articulate their vision and how they articulate why that vision matters.
  3. Rinse and repeat with another leader you respect, while keeping an eye on the one(s) before.

That’s it. Do that and see what happens. I’d love for you to communicate your results with me. Click to email me and let me know how this goes for you! 😊

One last thing to note, since you’ve read this far. One of the gripes of people like my friend is that people almost never do stuff as well as you want. It’s true. But here’s the thing: you can’t have maximum efficiency and maximally grow your people at the same time. I’m not saying you can’t have both: I’m saying one will usually suffer, and a good leader accepts this trade-off and understands they must constantly negotiate it. But they don’t ever forget that long-term growth of whatever they’re doing depends on how much they grow their people. (And that’s one clue to why a lot of our organisations aren’t known for surviving their founders.)

Do you find this worth spreading? Heart it! 💚

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Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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