Why You’re Probably Not Leading, and How to Fix It

Consider this possibility: You’re not leading.

You may be in a leadership position - even a senior one - but you’re a leader in name only.

Perhaps that’s too much to take on board. Maybe you think that because you’re directing others or your organisation in the direction that you want them to go, that you’re leading.

Or maybe you believe yourself to be a leader because you have the authority to quell dissent and have done so in the past.

None of those things make you a leader. None of them is evidence of the leadership you claim to have. That’s because leading or leadership isn’t a thing. Instead, it’s an activity, and it’s a very special kind of activity. It’s one that you can’t do in a vacuum. You can’t do it by yourself. It depends on the response of others.

That response, however, is also predicated on the will of those people. If they follow you because, under the pain of some consequences if they don’t, then that’s not leadership, as the most cursory glance at any dictatorship will prove. True leadership is known to be exercised when, given an objective choice, people decide to follow you. They decide to do what you ask them to. And not only do they do it willingly, but quite often they do it cheerfully.

You see, willing followers don’t want to follow anyone else, and they certainly don’t want to carve their own path. And that means that if you’re leading, then you’ll always have followers. There’s no such thing as a leader that no one follows.


What will make people want to follow you?

Fundamentally, people will follow you willingly because the reason why they should benefits them in some way. That’s not just another way of saying that if they don’t, then they’ll be in big trouble with you.


The benefit of doing so is unrelated to the consequences of failing to. They’re independent of one another.

For instance, let’s say that you run a non-profit that has a mission to preserve the countryside in your area. You decide to recruit someone to be your No.2. You’re going to want that person to share the same passion for nature as you do. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll hire anyone who doesn’t.

But let’s look at this from the perspective of the candidate. Not only is it likely that that person will be committed to the cause that your non-profit supports, they also will evaluate the opportunity in the context of their personal goals. That means that even if they believe that the position will enable them to promote the aims of your organisation, which they believe in, they won’t take up your offer if it fails to give them what they want beyond that.

How many people are there, for instance, who would work for you because they support your cause, but can’t afford to do so because either you won’t give them a job or the position doesn’t pay them enough to earn a living? Charities could solve their staffing issues overnight if they had the money to pay people.

So while believing in a common cause may make people want to follow you, other factors unrelated to it may prevent them from doing so. Far too many people in leadership roles are unaware of just how important this is.

You’ve seen this yourself. Some will try to make others feel guilty. One gets the impression that everyone but the CEO and the board are the ones that are expected to sacrifice themselves when it comes to promoting a given cause.


How to fix your lack of leadership

Now suppose that you’ve recognized that despite your position, you haven’t been the leader that you thought you were. Suppose that you now admit that people don’t follow you because they really want to.

What then?

Entire books have been written on this topic, and you’re not going to find all of the answers in this brief article to the many questions that you may have.


But here are a couple of suggestions.

The first is that you should review the reasons why you promote the people that you do. Promotion should always and only be merit-based. Merit includes attitude. It’s not limited to reaching quarterly targets for instance. It’s possible to do that while trampling over the needs of others. You don’t have to have a good attitude to be successful. In fact, many people aren’t. Instead, they reach their objectives quite often through tyranny.

Of course, that’s not leadership, as you know, but if you don’t care then you won’t take any notice of it. But if you’re determined to be the leader that you’ve been called to be, then you must make sure that you promote people for the right reasons, and that you’re consistent about it.


The second thing you can do is to recruit the right people. This is closely related to promoting the right ones.

What does that look like?


Well, the wrong person will want the job primarily for reasons other than that their desire to follow you and advance your vision for the organisation. You’ll have to devise your own questions to tease out the details, as every situation is different, but two things should be red flags.

First, they may want the job you’re offering because it’s better than the one they have. Now there’s nothing wrong with seeking a new position for that reason, but there’s nothing right about hiring someone whose interest in their compensation or professional development is greater than their commitment to you, what your organisation stands for, or how they can change the lives of others by accepting it.

It could be that the candidate is better qualified than anyone else on paper, but whose motives are not driven by what is most important to you.

The second thing is that they just want to move to your geographical location. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people move to a particular place because the schools are better, or they like the neighbourhoods, or there are more of their favorite stores. And of course there’s nothing wrong with moving for any of those reasons, but you don’t want to hire someone whose primary reason for wanting to work for you is because of those things. In the old days, that would be like hiring someone because they liked the company car that you were going to give them. To look at this another way, you want people in your organisation to be there because they would want to be anyway even if none of these things were available.

That’s the ideal candidate.

Perhaps you don’t have the luxury of recruiting or even promoting anyone. Small organisations, where positions are one deep or which lack the resources to do this, have to find other ways.

The most obvious one is for you to change your leadership style, after all, we are talking about the possibility that you may not even be leading. If people don’t follow you willingly, then you must assume in the first instance that it’s because of one or more things that you’re doing or failing to do.

For example, what’s the extent of the relationship that you have with those you want to lead? You don’t have to be chummy with them, though in a small organisation it will benefit you greatly to be friendly at the very least. And informality in the clothes that people wear and in how they address you and others can help a lot in this respect.

You also need to give them more autonomy and responsibility. Doing so proves that you trust their judgement. When they know that you trust them, then they’ll look more favourably on you and be inclined to embrace what you’re trying to do because it pleases them to do so.

The third way is a bit more drastic, though effective. It’s to start replacing the people who won’t follow you. Maybe you don’t have the resources to take on someone extra, but if you got someone who was better suited for the role - for the organisational culture - who wanted to follow you anyway, then things would start to improve.


Company culture

In the post-pandemic world of work, organisational culture will change dramatically. In fact, it’s been argued that is will die altogether. That will largely depend on the extent to which people go back to work in your company, as opposed to doing so remotely.

But even if they all went back, the culture would be changed forever. Things will never be what they were.

You may be wondering how it will change, and how your leadership style also needs to change so that people will follow you.

For one thing, people will be less or unwilling to give up the autonomy that they’ve enjoyed. They’ve had to make decisions about when to work, what to do, and how to do it. This may have felt a bit awkward in the beginning, but they’ll be used to it by now. Contrary to the widely publicised belief that it takes a mere 21 days to change a habit, the reality is that it’s more like 66 days. And folks in your organisation will have had that and more. And so they’re not going to simply do an about-face and go back to the old way of doing things. They’ll expect to retain much of the independence that they’ve had.

How will that affect your leadership style? To be effective, you’ll need to let them take charge of themselves - to lead themselves. Your role will be to guide and to facilitate; to provide direction and vision, to invite them to come along.

Another change that will take place, and has done so already, is that there will be more fear. Staying at home feels safe. For many, going out does not.

Xenophobia is something we normally think of as a fear of strangers, but what if you’re afraid that ordinary people - even people you know - will infect you? That, too, will make people want to keep their distance. And that distancing will inhibit relationships. It’ll make it harder to get to know people and to work with them. And that’s because of the pervasive feeling they have that they have to protect their health above all else.


How does this change the way you lead?

You’ll have to create an environment where people feel it’s safe to collaborate, and you’ll find that you have to mediate between and among them more than you once did.

It’s a particularly odd situation in that people will expect to be left alone to do their work while at the same time looking to you to help them interact with their colleagues because they don’t know how to do it in a way that makes them feel safe.

Things aren’t the way they used to be and probably won’t be for a considerable time to come.

No one knows what the new normal will look like. They only know that the old normal isn’t acceptable anymore. They’ll be looking to you to help them find a way to work differently and effectively.

That means that you can’t wait for events to unfold. That’s what those who are leaders in name only do. They wait for events to overtake them, and then follow along behind.

If you want to be a leader - to act the way true leaders do - then you’ll anticipate the needs and fears of those you seek to lead, and then show them the path. And if they’re confident in your ability to lead them on it, then they’ll follow you.


Want to know more about why you're probably not leading? Contact me here

See Bob talk more about leadership here < https://youtu.be/ngm54ngumNk

Check out the Thoughts on Thursday Webinar Series here <  https://www.bemoreeffective.com/key-skills-for-leaders-webinar-series/  >

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