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Leadership: That Concept that Actually *Doesn't* Mean That You're In Charge

originally published on the Coding Duck blog:

So, let's start this post by talking about something that everybody agrees on: relationships. How many guys out there believe that it is their right to be "in charge" of things in relationships? How many women feel that they are expected to "sit meekly in the corner and agree"? Probably a lot of those of us in heterosexual relationships. Even in relationships where gender is not assigned a role, one of the two probably feels that their job is to lead and make decisions for the family. There are many schools of thought on why this is: the Bible saying women need to be slaves to men, a male-dominated business and political landscape, modern and overt chauvinism, and the like.

While I feel that arguments can be made to each of those conclusions, there really is no material that says men must take women by the hair, and women must let them. The Bible itself tells men, in slightly more elegant language, that a man who doesn't listen to what his wife has to say and is a domineering jerk is not only a moron but also does not have God's favor. So, why is there this idea that men need to be dominant and women not?

It is for the same reason modern managers and CEOs feel that "their word goes" and "nobody has a right to tell them anything because they are running the show": perception. The world we live in has a really screwed up method of applying the definition of the word "leadership". Webster's Dictionary's first definition of leadership is:

the office or position of a leader

Which is unsurprising. However, the second definition is:

capacity to lead

and the third is:

the act or an instance of leading

See the pattern? A leader is not simply one with a title or qualifications. Leadership is an active concept that requires capacity and fitness. Why?

First of all, because a leader is not an authority but rather, an example. Too much power today is given to words spoken in keynotes at conferences or social media grandstanding. The concept of "actions speak louder than words" is largely lost in modern society because people now see giving a keynote or choosing to post on social media as actions when, in reality, both are simply forms of people talking.

Second, many see the benevolent actions of a company or the ignorance of a country and equate that to its leader or prominent board members. But Satya Nadella does not personally donate to high profile charities and post it on LinkedIn, Microsoft does. Microsoft then writes the money off as a tax deduction. That is a business decision designed, initiated, and marketed by several teams of people with the goal of improving an image. Nothing against Satya, I'm sure he's a great guy, but the reality is that he gets credit for what his company does.

Elon Musk is another great example. We always refer to his companies that he built. That he is solely responsible for the success of SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Co, etc. A tweet of his once read "Oh yeah, I'm also building a Cyborg Dragon." Really? Are you going to descend into SpaceX's laboratories and invent the Biological and Chemical, not to mention Mechanical components necessary to build a mythical creature that is part animal, part machine? Are you sure you aren't going to just put your signature on a check for several billion dollars of SpaceX's money that will pay some experts in those fields to do that for you while you talk to press?

You see, the god-like status of leaders over centuries, and especially in recent decades, has resulted in leaders actually starting to believe that they are the ones solely responsible for success. They seem to have completely forgotten that, without teams of people to pay to do stuff, they would be another person with an idea. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Indie Hackers are a great example.

But leadership, true leadership, is a person who has the humility to acknowledge that, even if they put in the hard work of building something from the ground up, after a company has annual revenue in the tens of millions, they are a figurehead now. The job of a true leader is to receive criticism of what they represent, and pass credit onto the people they represent. Being a real leader is hard because it means your job is to always take the blame and never take the credit. Many current leaders have this concept totally backward.

Why is it that Mark Zuckerburg is said to be worth the same amount that Facebook is worth? Are you telling me that the CEO of the company makes as much money as the company itself? Not at all. Or, at least it shouldn't be valued that way. He is a man who, according to his corporation, is assigned a salary that is assuredly not $40B/year. But now that things have hit the fan with what his employees have done, more people blame Sheryl Sandberg than they do him. Sure, he receives plenty of flak, but even in leaked all-hands meetings, he tells his employees "we" need to be better, "we" need to do this-and-that. Okay, because when things were going well, all mention of the company was "Mark Zuckerburg's Facebook has doubled in revenue blah blah blah". So if it was his company then, why isn't Facebook's epic nosedive his problem and his alone?

Leadership is not power, is not control. Leadership is responsibility, and responsibility comes with a lot of cons and very few, if extremely valuable pros. Responsibility is hard, demanding, and arduous work that requires you to look beyond yourself, even removing yourself from your position if/when your leadership has proven ineffective or damaging. You are not your product or your brand. These things are a result of you. But just like a young child's actions are typically blamed on the parents, true leaders accept that they will lead a life of making sure that the people they surround themselves with succeed and should hope, not to preserve their own dominance, but train and nurture those they lead to ultimately replace them. It is difficult, humbling, takes courage and patience, and seems to be totally lost on the world we live in.

But we, as innovators, thinkers, builders, and problem-solvers have the power to change this. We have the power to do what so few desire to. If we wish to lead, we must do so from the front. We will not stand in an operations base miles from battle and radio orders for our subordinates to fall into the line of fire. We will lead from the front, training those that report to us to pick up our banner when we inevitably fall in battle. And we will fall. We hope to fall. And we hope to do so mounted on a horse in front of our soldiers on foot, being the first to take whatever comes their way so as to spare those we lead and therefore, support.

Top comments (3)

sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo

The part where you mentioned that CEOs have a god-like status, remembered me a story from ancient Rome. According to the anecdotes, Julius Caesar had a slave whose task was to hold a Laurus crown over his head while parading around the streets of Rome. At the same time, he had to whisper into Caesar's ears: "You are only a human".

True or not, maybe that job is still not obsolete.

kaelscion profile image

I totally agree that companies need a CEO. I wholly believe in the job title, just not the job description it now carries. There needs a person that "the buck stops with" in any organization. But i feel that modern CEOs try to bring more attention to themselves than to their sales staff, engineers, product managers, marketing folks, board members, etc. A CEO is a living logo: meant to represent a brand. A logo cannot take credit or defer blame, it simply must be a public-facing representative of the a company. So should a CEO be, a representative and the first person to receive the press and field their questions. But that kind of leadership should not come with omnipotence as if without them, the other wonderful people making it happen in the background would suddenly become incompetent amateurs.

While I feel strongly about this, I could very well be biased by my personal experiences and am extremely open to discussion. Perhaps others have a differing opinion? I'd love to hear it 😁

jessekphillips profile image
Jesse Phillips

I'm being a chance to take on leadership. I appreciate this position but am not sure I believe it. The idea that the leader is taking one for the team and handing down praise is the attribute of a good manager, and like a CEO that may or may not include leadership.

I'm looked at for this because, as you say, my action are looked at as examples and people seek advice. If I'm training and guiding but not actually doing or with authority to decide things I'm no longer leading because I no longer have authority to create the examples which can be followed.