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The Agony of Leading Leaders

A general dictionary defines a leader as someone who influences or leads a group of people towards a specific goal, or someone who holds a high degree of control or influence over a nation and its citizens, etc. Until a couple of decades ago the word leader was mainly reserved to famous folks like prime ministers, presidents, army generals, etc. But today the word leader is rampant in all business organizations and workplaces. And the word has been hijacked to such an extent that all business titles, teams and initiatives are now appended with the word leader or leadership, like Team Leader, Business Leader, Project Leader, Leadership Teams, Senior Leadership, etc. Also today there are hardly any management articles or LinkedIn profiles of individuals that does not have a generous sprinkling of the word leader and leadership.
Though the word leader is now commonplace and even stale, such titles often give the person or team an aura of exaggerated importance. But has it ever occurred to you that having a title of a leader does not automatically qualify you to lead OTHER LEADERS who are equally or more qualified, smarter, talented, richer, courageous, opinionated, subject experts, etc. And the funny part could be such leaders may exist within your own team reporting to you, or as colleagues in the office hierarchy. In short they will be equal or superior to you, whether you like it or not. Now how do you lead such persons? You can't boss them around or threaten to fall in line just by flaunting your title or position. And your ideas, suggestions, or advice may fall on deaf ears or you may even face a rebellion if you try to do so.
It is not just workplaces that have this problem. This tricky situation is applicable in other professions also when dealing with highly qualified lawyers, surgeons, doctors, judges, bureaucrats, top government officials, professors, scientists, artists, police officials, directors, etc., whose egos will be operating on a hair trigger. Anyone can lead a bunch of sycophants or obedient sheep who don't question your decisions. But what if you are suddenly pushed into a situation where you have to lead or manage a bunch of leaders ranging from calm to cranky? How do you get them to do what you want them to do? What buttons do you press (or not press) to ensure their egos are not bruised and relationships are not spoiled. To understand what those buttons are you must humbly accept some harsh limitations and roadblocks any leader will face when trying to lead other leaders.
Followers: To be called as a leader he or she must have some followers. But talented folks would have been there and done that, and will rarely take kindergarten advice or threats lightly. Such people will not fall in line behind a leader because they do not consider themselves as followers. They see themselves as leaders and will expect to be treated as one. They will challenge anything that tries or demands that they fall in line or be blindly led without question. If you try traditional leadership methods like inspiring speeches, motivational charades or one way communication you will only become an object of ridicule rather than a leader. For example, a brash manager could be confidently leading a team of employees in a traditional Japanese, British or Asian organization where obedience and respect for titles and authority is high. But if he tries the same tricks in an American company he will soon have to polish his resume.
Selling your idea: Just because you think your idea is great does not mean other leaders will blindly accept it. You should sell your idea to them. Rather than act as a boss you should consider yourself as a salesman trying to sell a new product or service to a customer. You should be able to demonstrate that your idea is superior to or at least equal to than their idea. If you try to shove your idea or decision down their  throat you will only encounter a rebuttal either immediately or at a later stage. They will accept your suggestions or ideas only if they believe it is in their interest to do so and not because you claim to be their leader.
Managing egos: While the feeling of not being able to lead effortlessly is generally unbearable to any manager you should first understand that jealousies and incompatibilities exist among all layers of intelligence right from kindergarten kids to pensioners. In fact, higher the intelligence, higher will be the politics and ego wars. On the outside everything may seem diplomatic, but internally it will be a simmering cauldron of envy, hatred and professional jealousies. This is why you will rarely find teamwork among highly qualified lawyers, surgeons, doctors, judges, professors, scientists, etc. Age factor also makes a big factor or roadblock in your success. For example, an young dynamic MBA graduate in charge of a hospital or university will rarely be able to command reverence or obedience from senior surgeons or seasoned professors who could be twice his age. Also such leaders will not take insults, threats or demands lightly.
Culture: Leadership is not a one size fits all method applicable to people of all countries. It also varies on culture, language, country, etc. For example, humorous or candid leadership styles that works in America will not work in China, Japan, Singapore, Russia, etc. And their styles may not work elsewhere. Also family run businesses will be a different kind of beast. There even the best possible leadership of an outsider will rarely be accepted or appreciated.
To summarize the story, you must accept that it is never easy to lead other leaders.  They will help you only if they feel you are not a threat or a nuisance to them. They key is to understand what makes them tick, how do you ensure their ideas and suggestions are accepted, age factor, your body language, your verbal and writing tone in dealing with them, and so on. Also the method you adopt for one leader may not work for another leader and each must be read like a separate book. Only when you master these skills you will be able to make some progress in managing your flock. So always remember that leading a bunch of sycophants or obedient sheep is as easy as walking in a park, but leading leaders is like walking in a jungle. You will never know which wild animal will pounce on you. Finally, we can end this article with a few quotes on leadership,

It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there - Franklin D. Roosevelt

The problem with being a leader is that you’re never sure if you’re being followed or chased - Claire A. Murray

People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything - Thomas Sowell

You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That's assault, not leadership - Dwight Eisenhower
Don’t ever follow any leader until you know whom he is following - Source Unknown


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