I am an avid viewer of the History Channel. A few nights ago I was watching a piece on Attila the Hun. What passed for leadership in those days was simply to cold-bloodedly kill off anyone who might be a threat to your power, even if this meant killing a nephew, cousin, brother, or even a father.

Now we have evolved. We no longer kill the competition, but cutthroat competition abounds nevertheless. Many managers have a mindset that does not lend itself to collaboration and the practicing of lofty human relations skills. So called "soft skills" are often ridiculed by managers who pride themselves on being single-mindedly task oriented. "My way or the highway" tends to be overutilized.

The way to get to the top for many is still viewed as a volcanic struggle, a desperate contest where there can be only one winner. Helping others is viewed as giving away points in the game. Competition rather than collaboration is the norm.

The idea of "Servant Leadership" is not widely accepted. For many, being the "boss" has nothing to do with taking care of others, or with coaching and mentoring. The number one managerial style in this country is still "command and control." Participative decision-making is often experienced as extremely threatening. Attila would not have had anything to do with such a lame idea.

I'm sure it is apparent to you that my definition of leadership has a lot to do with getting people to willingly and enthusiastically follow. It has to do with leaders who serve, inspire, and help others grow. It has to do with coaching and mentoring, and balancing concern for task with concern for people. It has to do with the realization that excellence is not achieved by coercion and domination, but rather through respect and encouragement.

If you want highly motivated, high-performing people, give them the tools and skills they need, help them understand their role in accomplishing the mission and the benefits for them, give them the autonomy to perform, and the appreciation for the work that they do. If you do these things, particularly the appreciation part, you'll usually have highly motivated and committed people. You will be a leader. I believe the essence of leadership is embodied in the often quoted Lao-tzu which I paraphrase as follows:

"The bad leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people praise. The great leader is he who the people say, "We did it ourselves."

In a similar quote, Lao-tzu stated:

The people, led by wise leadership, will come to the realization, "We did it ourselves."


© 2005 William C. Shearer, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.B.A.

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