Rhetoric | What is Leadership?


What is Good Leadership? 

(c) 2016 Vernon Miles Kerr

This morning I received an email from Doctor Eduardo Diaz via LinkedIn asking for my comments on the above question, “What is Leadership?” www.linkedin.com/in/EduardoDiazPhD  After ten years in the banking industry,  followed by 25 years as an IT salesman and sales manager followed by my most recent  15 years as a software engineer and software configuration manager, I have seen plenty of both good and bad examples of leadership.   Before that, during my childhood, my father also had plenty to say about the examples of leadership he encountered as an infantry platoon sergeant in World War II in Europe.

When I received Dr. Diaz’s  request to add my comments to the discussion about leadership, I quickly jotted down what immediately came to mind on the subject:


Now, given a bit more time to consider the questtion, I thought that a more in-depth analysis might be appropriate—since the answer to that simple question is a key to solving some of the problems facing humanity in this chaotic world today.

The Need for Leadership is Part of our Nature

As a social creature, one that cannot effectively exist in solitude, the human being is stuck with the necessity to organize into hierarchical  social structures.  The term “hierarchy”  demands something at the apex followed by levels of increasing subordination.  In a human social hierarchy each level needs to exercise good leadership over the one below, in order to be effective.  A bad leader or group of leaders anywhere within the hierarchy threatens the effectiveness of the entire enterprise.

Where is the Training in Good Leadership?

This should be a “given” and second-nature to anyone who has been given the responsibility of  leadership, and yet in today’s business and industry, too often individuals are elevated into a managerial role without any vetting or training on the subject of good leadership.  This was the case during my first promotion to branch manager in the finance industry when I was 24.  I have a feeling of remorse everytime I think of the way I treated the people under me in that small branch and then later, in a promotion to a much larger one.  Let’s just say my management style was a mixture between my Drill Instructor father and Hitler.  Actually, the style was also largely influenced by the stereotypical “big boss” portrayed in movies and television.

Today’s Sad State of Affairs

Now, 50 years later, with so many holders of Bachelors and Masters of Business Administration degrees working in corporate hierarchies, one would think that a level of good leadership would be evident.  The assumption is that training in good leadership is part of the curriculum. Either it isn’t or most of the graduates of our business schools cut class that day.  My last position in SCM (Software Configuration Management) just two months ago supports my thesis:  a low-level manager consistently rejected prospective engineer-hires whom she perceived to be more knowledgable than she was and therefore a threat;  project-management had to continually attempt to talk existing engineers threatening resignation “off the ledge” because of her treatment of subordinates.  Out of fear for change or some mutual-protection pact, her superior did nothing.  Nothing much has changed in 50 years.

Too often, managers are focused on self-promotion or self-preservation rather than the departmental or corporate mission statement.  Co-workers are painfully aware of this but, mysteriously, those in the next-higher level of the hierarchy are not—or they are protecting such a person as part of their own self-preserving focus.  As mentioned above, bad leaders, at any level of the hierarchy,  threaten the effectiveness of the entire enterprise.

So, What Does a Good Leader Look Like?

First, good leaders have empathy for those under them. This does not mean that they are pushovers—cruise directors, focused only on making sure that the entire team is happy at work.  A good leader clearly sets expectations then follows up and facilitates—meaning that  he or she clears the work area of physical and psychological impediments so that subordinates can do their jobs.  Opposite from the negative example above, good leaders are aware of it, if managers under them are focused on self-promotion rather than the promotion of the enterprises’s goals.  In such a situation, a good leader acts to remove that impediment—or to mentor the offender in order to re-focus him or her on the goals at hand.  Workers are going to be automatically happy as a consequence of following that one rule of good leadership.

The Evolution of Leadership

The human animal’s evolution did not stop with our opposable thumbs and impressive brains.  More importantly, the human being has been evolving socially all these millennia, moving from a tribal model where an “alpha male” rules the females and juvenile males by pure fear, to a progressively more collaborative one where group goals are accomplished by respecting and tapping the talents of everyone in the group.  Unfortunately, today’s news provides far too many examples of de-evolved dictatorial leaders still ruling by primitive fear tactics.  History should teach these leaders that there is no future in it.  Such leadership often winds up in a bunker, at the business end of a Navy Seal’s weapon or at the end of a rope.

Doctor Manfred Wolf recently started a fascinating Twitter conversation on the question of why dictatorial leaders choose fear tactics (when cultivating love in followers is so much easier.)  This conversation went on for quite some time, in both English and Dutch.

If the reader thought this piece was going to be an altruistic plea for everyone to “play nice,” just for the sake of creating a more utopian Earth, by now he or she should have gotten the idea that the more evolved social model just makes sense.  As Dr. Wolf intimated, it’s easier.  It’s also more efficient in terms of reaching mutual goals and yes, someday it will create a more utopian Earth.