Dictators, generals, and gurus
What is your leadership style? What is your boss’s style? I suggest you stop for a moment before going on reading my thoughts on the subject and do the following: close your eyes and think of three great leaders you admire most. Write down who comes to mind first, we’ll come back to this later.
The other day I met a very interesting guy. By his own account he is a “hard-driving very outcome-oriented guy.” I was indeed thoroughly impressed with his many diverse professional and personal achievements. Wow! He was very inquisitive, told me that he really “loves people” and to hear what they are doing, so he naturally asked about my achievements. Interestingly, although I am proud of them and I had thought about myself as a very strong, determined and outcome-oriented person (impression expressed by others many times), in that very moment wondered did I have anything he could see even remotely matching his triumphs? Not surprisingly he did not seem that impressed with my first shot at it. Upon further probing, he came back with a diagnostic for my “problem”: I am not good at demanding what I “rightfully deserve,” and went on to tell me how I SHOULD demand it. I was impressed, he had great insights, the speed at which he diagnosed and solved my problem was dizzying, and his approach was likely to be very effective. The mirror he held almost instantly helped me learn something about myself. I realized I have been very good at proving myself over and over again for any of the seemingly impossible tasks I had chosen to tackle, but I had not been good at asking for upfront investments in me before undertaking these challenges. I have always assumed that people will be able to appreciate the effort and proven success, and will then be willing to invest in me and my work. He told me that was not the way it usually works (yeah, I had noticed!) and that I needed to announce “my price” up front. He even told me exactly what and how (“lower your voice!”) I should say. Upon my reaction that it does not come naturally to me, he went so far to say I was a “wimp” and then added that I needed to make it clear that was a “take it or leave it.” In fact, all his highlighted successes seemingly had been pre-ambled with this kind of offer to his prospective sponsors.
I walked away from our meeting convinced this method I had not used was extremely efficient. It was not easy to hear his opinion, but being always on the lookout for learning new ways to solve problems and ways to better myself, I resolved to try it! I envisioned my next important conversation and me saying the words I was told to say… My brain confirmed it was a smart thing to do, but at the same time could not put back the various words indicated into sentences that seemed as elegantly incisive or convincing as they sounded when he had said them. I thought I must be dyslexic or maybe my English (as a fourth language) kicked in… I tried again and it dawned on me: I might have had both problems, plus… it just wasn’t me! Some may love and some may hate my “style”, but this is what makes me, me. I could have probably obtained greater rewards or attained higher positions, but I can’t imagine becoming a different person altogether and being able to communicate with and keep engaged the same dear friends, allies, and some “fans” I have had for years. And with whom – or what – would I replace them? With people wowed by my achievements, subdued by my will, or maybe by well deserved ”rewards”… money, power??? And then I realized that even if I were successful in employing the all or nothing dictatorial approach, the gained exchange would not appeal to me. So, I resolved that I needed to make sure I will never again completely forego the upfront discussion about ‘what’ would it take to have me take on a challenge, but we are different, so I’ll do it my way.
Now, back to you! I offered this preamble also to give you the time to come up with three names… Have you picked three leaders that you admire most yet? Last chance! I promise it will help you a great deal with understanding yourself. This simple exercise asking me to focus on who I admired most has helped me discover what I value most and how I relate to people. Assuming that you have come up with three names, let’s think what they may reveal.
Here are what I think of as the three main categories of leadership styles: dictators, generals, and gurus. To help you think which leader are you, and what style do you prefer when led? I will succinctly try to define these categories. I came up with the following summaries of the value proposition from their three perspectives and how they relate to people they lead and with other leader types:
- Dictator: “Take it or leave it! By the way: you WILL do it!” Dictators are sole decision-oriented leaders, they lead by “Fiat!” (“my way or the highway,” they can’t even imagine some else might have a better solution). They seek absolute power and rich material rewards. Dictators might fancy themselves as loved, but in fact don’t care much about what ”troops” or “generals” think of them and, strangely they seem to fear “gurus”… So they send “troops” and generals to “war”, and “gurus” into exile (or worse).
- General: “Take it, don’t leave it, I’ll lead you through”. Generals are action-oriented leaders, they lead by strategizing and charging in front of troops gathered behind them. Generals enjoy the power and material rewards, but what they seek most is glory, an interesting combination of delivering actual success and being perceived as a great leader. They have “skin in the game” and they know they can’t win without the help of others! So, good generals seek to earn the respect and love of their backing and seek the help and counsel of allies and advisors.
- Guru: “You don’t have to take it, but I’ll show you how it’s good for you.” Gurus are thought leaders, they draw people to them by envisioning and by example, having the courage to dream, speak, and act before having the backing of any constituency…. Pure gurus are throwing their whole self and life into their truth or vision of the future and are willing to die for it, but expect no personal material or power rewards, rather seek enlightenment and the opportunity to help by sharing it with the “troops” and generals. Dictators are powerless in ordering gurus around and hence fear them. Gurus better stay away from dictators’ wrath… Interestingly, great gurus have attained eternal glory beyond that of most successful generals of their day. As they function best in the future, gurus’ glory usually grows with time and frequently only posthumously.
Do these ring any bells, do you recognize anybody: you, your CEO? We are all very complex, it would be amiss if I didn’t clarify that many leaders combine to some extent characteristics of the three “types”. There is no doubt in my mind that there are sophisticated or even charismatic dictators, visionary generals, as well as rather effective gurus… I propose that the best leaders are those who have the ability to flex their style to best match the circumstances, sensing and employing in each situation the most effective overall mix. For instance, pure guru types will likely not be effective in the middle of a reorganization, but are essential in foreseeing the need for it and formulating its goals. Innovation requires a multifaceted leader or at least an enlightened one who will consult gurus (or be one), be dictatorial when absolutely required, and overall lead like a general the implementation of a great strategy. Similarly, the “troops” vary in their preference of leaders: some prefer to be told what to do and how to do it, some perform at their best when inspired by leaders who only outline and/or allow possibilities. Besides knowing themselves, great leaders understand well their troops and their battles.
I feel that it’s only fair that I share with you the top three choices I made when given only two minutes during leadership training. I think this simple and very effective exercise has helped me a lot. The short time allowed seems important to me to reveal the fundamentals, hearing from others what may sound as astonishing choices was also very telling. Suffice to say that after I had announced my three: Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, a person, who had picked Alexander the Great, Napoleon and… Hitler (!!! “he was charismatic???”) said to me that I obviously did not understand our assignment: the people I had chosen were obviously “not actual leaders” (“whom did they lead ?!?” he asked)
Would you please tolerate me, dictator… can you imagine that I actually prefer the “guru’s style?”