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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

The job of leadership is a big one – whether it is leading a country or leading a department.

Is it about the economy? It's about the leadership stupid.

19 February 2009

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The past few weeks have been wildly encouraging for those of us who like to think. We have gone from a dearth of national discussion to a continuous spirited debate. Of course presidential election cycles are filled with debate, but in seasons past the debate has come to a halt once the election is over and the governing begins. This time the debate continues. Whether you like our new president or not, whether you agree with his cabinet choices or not, whether you are worried about the stimulus or not, the overall discourse has become a lot more intelligent simply because it is a lot more inclusive. There are many lessons in this, but let’s focus on three lessons for leadership today.

Lesson One: Our leaders are responsible for moving us, not getting approval from us. The job of leadership is a big one – whether it is leading a country or leading a department. It comes with responsibility to sort out the best path from among many possible paths. It comes with the necessity that you make peace with your mistakes as well as your successes – because there will definitely be both. On many occasions the leader finds himself faced with making the better of two bad decisions, and the certain knowledge that they will get flamed either way. Want to be a leader? Then set aside any personal need for people to like you or approve of you, and instead invest in the strength of will and character to do the right things for the right reasons as often as possible and as difficult as it may be to figure out.

Lesson Two: Communication must be filled with content. No matter how effective an organization is at communicating, its leaders will always be criticized for not communicating enough. Is that because its members are unreasonable? For the most part, no. It’s because in any complex organization there is more communication need than there is time to fill the need. Good leaders make sure that the time they spend communicating is marked by the high quality of the content. It doesn’t have to be content everyone agrees with (see Lesson One), it has to be content that is meaningful.

Lesson Three: Good leaders benefit from dissension. Yes, there is a reference to Lesson One here, but there is more to it than that. Dissent is always instructive. Dissent teaches the leader about the many angles of each issue; how people of various backgrounds, intelligence, and experience view the issue; and points out opportunities to learn more about each issue. Dissent also teaches the leader about who they can rely on as thinkers and who they cannot. A good leader doesn’t ultimately have to do what the followers want or expect, because he is being paid to make good decisions with presumably better information, skills, and experience than the others. But it is in the leader’s and the organization’s best interests for the leader to lead as publicly and openly as possible, in order to generate the dissension and debate that leads to better decision-making.

Every administration contributes its own chapters to the global book of leadership knowledge, and this one will be no different. But we can all take immediate insight from current events. For those of us who are or aspire to be leaders, the choice must be about more than the increased paycheck. Besides, given the hours a really good leader works, the hourly rate can look pretty meager. The choice must be about having a passion to lead, a belief that you can make a positive difference, and a willingness to be criticized, disliked, and argued with for the sake of progress. For those who do not wish to lead but who expect to have a voice in the process, there is a responsibility to make sure the arguments we proffer are grounded in a desire to help our leaders make better decisions and in a commitment to be informed enough, objective enough, and open enough to be part of dissent-with-purpose, and not just dissent-with-negativity.

© 2009. Andrea M. Hill