OC Emberton

Why most leaders are bad, and you may be no better

Like parenting, the only people who think leadership is easy are the people who haven’t tried it. The problem is what people want is rarely what people want:

“Leaders must hold firm”

We want our leaders to make the right decision all the time. To u-turn is to fail.

Yet when information changes, the right decision a leader should make changes. Most decisions are made with imperfect information, so we should expect our leaders to make many imperfect choices and have to fix them. The problem is, we interpret any change of mind as a fault.

So leaders are punished for correcting themselves.

“Leaders must think quickly”

We want quick, timely decisions from our leaders. To be indecisive is to fail.

Yet it takes time to make good decisions, especially complex ones. Few decisions need an immediate response, but our appetite for reaction from our leaders is instantaneous. We demand reactions now, or our leaders are ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’.

So leaders are punished for considering their actions.

“Leaders must hold popular support”

We want our leaders to agree with us. To be unpopular is to fail.

Yet no-one can agree on everything. Popularity is a terrible judge of whether an action is right; many of the best actions in hindsight are the least popular. But to fail to accommodate for the popular, or loudest voice is to be ‘out of touch’.

So leaders are punished for making decisions that people don’t agree with.

“Leaders must be straightforward”

We want to understand our leaders. To confuse is to fail.

Yet many decisions require complex reasoning that can’t be conveyed in a single tweet. We don’t have lawyers reduce their closing remarks to 140 characters, but if a decision cannot be explained so simply, we distrust those who offer it, or reduce that complexity to a simpler lie.

So leaders are punished for using too much intelligence or expertise.

Most leaders are bad because of the pressures of leadership. Choosing the right decisions is hard enough, but social pressures compromise their integrity at every turn. It’s like a surgeon trying make life-or-death decisions on their own family.

To be a great leader, you must be stronger than the forces upon you. You must be willing, on occasion, to change your mind, to take your time, to be unpopular and to risk losing people with your reasoning, even when your nature might command otherwise.

In short, you must serve a bigger purpose than yourself. All great leaders need something worthwhile to justify their sacrifice.


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