Talking about leadership vs. actual leadership

By Mike Cook 
For the Bellingham Business Journal

This summer I’ll be teaching course 524 to students in the evening MBA program at Western Washington University. I have worked with this group before and am looking forward to putting together a meaningful and challenging learning experience. Knowing the group as I do, I fully expect them to hold me accountable for making that happen.

I say this armed with the knowledge that in the group there are several already accomplished leaders and several more students who have shown signs of willingly stepping into the arena. And that, after all, is where leadership occurs, in the arena, not in the seats watching the proceedings.

Here’s how the course is described:

“Interpersonal skill building in critical management areas including stress management, delegation, communication, power and influence, meetings and conflict management.”

My guess is that, if we were talking about a restaurant and you saw this dish described on the menu, it would not make you begin to salivate. But how about if it were described like this:

“It is not the critic who counts;

not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,

whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;

who strives valiantly;

who errs and comes short again and again;

who knows great enthusiasms,

the great devotions;

who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,

and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly

so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

My guess is that in reading the course description and the quote you felt a difference. The first was a description of the ingredients of leadership written by a spectator in the stands while the second was a description of the experience of leadership written by someone who spent years in the arena.

In checking with Amazon today I found that they currently offer 21,639 titles on leadership or some aspect of leading. A quick search on Google yields 68,400,000 sources, books, articles etc., on the subject. Never has so much been written that made so little difference on topic and yet many more words, books, articles, studies and more will be published and they will promise to offer new and more compelling insight into what most employers would say is missing in their organizations, or is at least in short supply. And virtually none of them will be as compelling or carry as much meaning as this short paragraph:

“This, therefore, is a faded dream of the time when I went down into the dust and noise of the Eastern market-place, and with my brain and muscles, with sweat and constant thinking, made others see my visions coming true. All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”

— Lawrence of Arabia

The distinction should be obvious yet in my experience we continually settle for the description of the meal rather than the meal itself.

In his 2011 book, “Do the Work”, author Steven Pressfield puts the ultimate challenge of leadership right in our face:

“When we’re offered a chance at heaven, what diabolically craven force makes us want to back off — just for now, we promise ourselves — and choose instead heaven’s pale reflection?”

As Pressfield so bluntly put it, the challenge of leadership is not the knowing what to do, it is the doing what needs to be done with both the risk and reward that it entails. As the quotes from both Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia make clear, the experience of leadership is fraught with the opportunity to fail and be exposed as a failure.

More from Pressfield: “The price for being on the field instead of in the stands is that you will take a few blows.”

The best way I can think of to teach leadership begins by not teaching about leadership. That has about as much relationship to mastery of leadership as reading the sports page Monday has to do with playing the game on Sunday.

You as a developer of leaders in your business have a challenge similar to mine. Are you willing to offer your employees the challenge of leadership, to coach them, to stand by their side as they struggle, to celebrate or commiserate with them and learn together?


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