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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

If I Knew Then …

by James Gelatt

A British journal recently launched a contest, inviting papers on this topic: “If I knew then what I know now about leadership …” If I were to submit something, here are the main points I’d cover. How about you?

The difference between leadership and management is overrated.

If you’ve read any of the better known authors on leadership, you know that most make a clear distinction between being a leader and being a manager.

Based on the comparisons, you’d have to be a drone to want to be a manager. Managers are drudges – plodders, who are content to follow orders and push paper. Leaders are imaginative; managers are insipid. Leaders are inspiring; managers are dull.

Nonetheless, there are differences worth noting. Leaders cause change; otherwise, they’re not leading. Managers can cause change as well; but they can also be effective by maintaining an acceptable status quo.

There is a difference between leadership and winning.

Jack Welch was all about winning. GE’s CEO insisted that his company would be #1 or #2 in any business in which it was engaged, or it would get out of that business. In itself, that is a worthy goal, and there is no denying that Welch made GE profitable.

My objection was with a key element to GE’s approach. Every year GE’s managers were required to rank each of their employees. Those who were deemed to be in the lowest 10% were fired.

My guess is that GE did not use the word “fired.” There may have been corrections in the workforce, improvements, etc. The actual terms may have been euphemistic – “being relieved of responsibility,” “being given the chance to pursue other interests,” “downsized.” But the short of it was that in the interest of GE’s being number one, it was every number one for himself or herself.

I’m not against “winning.” For several years I ran a grant writing department for a major association, and in order to obtain grants and contracts, we had to “win.” But that was never the focus of our department. Rather, our focus was on conceiving the best approach, bringing on top talent, and writing the best proposal of which we were capable. Our focus was not on beating the other guy; it was on doing our very best, as a team.

It’s not about being the boss.

Organizations are full of people who hold an organizational title – and don’t deserve it.

I don’t know about you, but I am so tired of people being promoted to leadership positions who are egoistical. Who don’t have a sense of humor. Who don’t get the difference between Me and the Organization.

I’m not saying that you have to – or should – subjugate your own goals for those of the organization. Quite the opposite. Effective leaders tie their own goals to the goals of the organization. When their goals and the organization’s goals are consonant, good things happen.

What I’m talking about are people who take the credit and duck the blame; who are manipulative; who are obsessed with getting ahead. You know who I’m talking about. You can see it in the way they dress, in the way they talk, and the way that they treat others.

I commend to you a quote from a rather arcane publication called The CEO Secret Handbook (2005): “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter -- or to others -- is not a nice person.” Those who deserve to be leaders don’t suck up to some and abuse others.

You have to take risks.

A few years ago I wrote a column for Contributions entitled “You Can’t Cross the Road with One Foot on the Curb.” You have to be willing to take chances. I’ll go one step further: I suggest that leaders are leaders because they enjoy the challenge.

The good news is that you don’t have to go it alone. Here again from The CEO Handbook: “Learn to say ‘I don't know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be used often.”

And from Eleanor Roosevelt: “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. We must do that which we think we cannot."

You can’t fix stupid.

I’m not talking about being a member of Mensa. I have known many people who were either in Mensa or certainly qualified to be. And many of them did not have a clue.

I’m one of the few people in my family who has a bachelor’s degree, the only one to get a terminal degree, and the only to work in higher education. But every time I get together with members of my family I’m struck by how insightful they are, and how much I can and do learn from them.

Collectively, they have raised extraordinarily talented, likable families. They know now to build things, repair things. There are lots of ways to perceive and appreciate intelligence. Just because someone did well in college in no way translates to his or her being the best candidate for a job. Lots of companies learned that lesson the hard way – hiring newly minted MBAs who had all the answers – but really did not have a clue.

There’s no more dangerous combination than ignorance and arrogance. Really bright people, really bright leaders, know what they don’t know. They surround themselves with people who complement their own talents.

In the end, leadership is about trust. And trust comes from honesty.

“To thine one self be true.” There is something to be said about what is called Emotional Intelligence, as Dan Goleman (1988) has described it:

1) Self-awareness – the ability to read your emotions and recognize their impact while using intuition to guide decisions.

2) Self-management – controlling your emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.

3) Social awareness – the ability to sense, understand, and react to others' emotions.

4) Relationship management – the ability to inspire, influence, and develop others, coupled with the ability to manage conflict.

I would add to Goleman’s list: Self honesty: the willingness to look inward, see yourself for who you really are, and build on the best you have to offer.

James Gelatt is the author of Managing Nonprofits in the 21st Century and general editor of Aspen's Fund Raising Series for the 21st Century. He is the president of Prentice Associates, a management consulting company specializing in associations and other national nonprofits, and a past-president of the Greater Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Society of Association Executives. You can reach him by email at jgelatt@umuc.edu


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