The Responsibility of Leadership

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Once upon a time when I used to do stand-up leadership development, I would start leadership courses with a simple question.  “Do you think your ability to lead has any impact on the ability of your employees to be successful in their roles?”  Of course, the answer was always yes.  Often these were new leaders who were eager and proud of their new positions, and easily gravitated to the power they sensed in the aforementioned question.  I would than always follow with, “Then you must also agree that your ability to lead also impacts your employees ability to feed their children, pay their mortgage and buy clothes for their family.”  That follow-up was often met with an uncomfortable silence as the gravity of what they were engaging in hit home.

Leaders have enormous power.  You can disengage people, diminish people, set people up for failure, demean them, demote them, and fire them.  Yes, you can do all this.  As a leader you have the ability to literally break people and ruin lives.  And not just their lives, the lives of their family members too. 

And so, I would follow my introduction with the admonition that because you wield so much power over people, you must also be careful with it and have the correct motivations.  You must take this leadership stuff seriously.  If you are in the business of leadership for power, or money, or ego, then you should probably not be in the leadership business.  The stakes are too high.  And indeed, when choosing leaders we must also be mindful of the same dynamics.  Don’t promote the greedy, and the egotistical, the power-hungry, or the political.  Instead, promote people who are motivated to accomplish big things, and to leading people and organizations to a better place.  Yes, this is the pithy stuff people in Organizational Development talk about all the time, but which is also entirely true.  And yet, organizations often do not care to consider and weigh the motivations of those they promote to leadership and, indeed, to their own motivations.

On the flip side, the power that leadership can hold over others can also be a force for great good.  I was once a part of a program to develop craft mechanics to leadership roles.  It was a successful experiment that I was quite proud of.  At some point after the program had been up and running, a new graduate came to see me.  He was a gruff, fire hydrant of a man.  A guy who had worked, and I mean worked, with his hands turning wrenches for two decades.  He wanted to express his thanks to me that he had been selected for the program.  He never thought he’d be a supervisor since he had no education or experience.  But, with tears in his eyes, this tough man told me that because of his raise, he was now able to afford to get additional help for his special needs child.

That is the flip side of the power of leadership.  The power to do great good in the world.  Not only in accomplishing the goals of your organization.  But also, in helping the people who work for you in accomplishing theirs. Thane Bellomo is an organizational development consultant with over 20 years of experience helping people and organizations maximize their potential and optimize their results at