During a promotion course at Canungra, I recall an instructor posing a simple question to the audience: 'How many of you have ever worked for a bad leader?'
Without hesitation, an auditorium full of senior Captains and junior Majors shot their hands in the air while simultaneously exchanging head nods and knowing grins. The sea of hands indicated the vote was unanimous – none among us had been exempt from experiencing what we perceived as inferior leadership in some form.
Once silence had returned to the lecture room, the wise instructor then posed a follow-up question to the course: 'How many of you are bad leaders?'
Crickets. Not one hand rose among the 90-odd strong course. Each of us nervously looked over our shoulders to see if anyone had raised their hand.
'Amazing! We have a statistical anomaly in the classroom here today' exclaimed the instructor, tongue-in-cheek. An awkward silence descended on the lecture theatre, with a few outbursts of nervous laughter escaping from some individuals.
Within seconds, the instructor had moved onto the rest of the lesson, and most of us settled back into our chairs. Comfortable that the spotlight was no longer being shone on us individually – everyone relaxed and paid it off as a light-hearted joke. Well not me – my mind was off and racing! However unintentional, the results of the mini social experiment struck a chord with me. I sat unable to focus on the remainder of the lesson buried in deep self-reflection and a spiral of over-analysing.
It got me thinking. How many of us lack true self-awareness when it comes to our own leadership strengths and weaknesses? Where are our blind spots, not just when we are posted in formal command appointments, but in all leadership roles?
What concerns do others see in us that so obviously need improvement that we fail to recognise in ourselves? Do we dedicate enough time to the honest and critical reflection of our own performance, or do we focus purely on the successes we have enjoyed, and conveniently minimise the things that we really should have done better?
While there is usually agreement on the higher order traits and values associated with the hallmarks of good leadership, it is in the detail that sits below these overarching qualities that are worth exploring. We each have our own opinions about the characteristics of good leaders based on our own experiences, biases and preferences. Some prefer their leaders to be excellent orators and communicators; while others favour those who invest significantly in their personal fitness standards. Some want their leaders to be very hands-on 'doer’s' that are not afraid to roll up their sleeves; while others prefer an intelligent leader who is less focussed on the tactical and keeps their eyes fixed on the strategic picture. Others will value a leader who can remember the first names of the hundreds of people that work for them and all of their family members and pets.
In an ideal world, every leader would embody all of these traits. But the sad reality is that very few of us are capable of possessing all of these qualities to a very high standard. With the exception of the rare, over-achieving unicorns that walk among us, most of us are mere mortals, likely to only be very good at a handful of these things, and are somewhat mediocre at the remaining attributes sought after by those posted under our command.
For the most part, we tend to disproportionately value the leadership qualities in others that we most like about ourselves. For example, those who pride themselves in being super fit and active personally, tend to value leaders who cherish the fitness and physical aspects of their job through a more favourable lens, than they would view those who may prioritise efforts differently and whose talents lie elsewhere.
Is it right that we want leaders displaying carbon copies of the leadership attributes we most like about ourselves? Should we not strive to surround ourselves with people who think differently, challenge us, and offer skill sets that we know we are less experienced in? Surely the organisation is strengthened by the collective talents spread across the institution, rather than expecting the best of everything to reside in one person.
Leadership is hard to get right – it is difficult to be all things to all people when the lens through which we view leadership is subjective and we each have our own opinion of ‘what right looks like’ when it comes to leadership.
Personally, I think it’s crucial to have a thirst for improvement – both for ourselves and those in our team. None of us are perfect leaders (and even some great leaders have the occasional misstep). We could all do with some polishing around the edges focusing on our less desirable traits to make our leadership shine a little brighter. Each of us should avoid becoming too comfortable or proud to ignore opportunities for leadership development and carry forward the lessons we learn with each posting and command experience, striving to do better next time around.
While there is no denying there are unfortunately some genuinely substandard leadership behaviours displayed by leaders in all organisations, before any of us rush to throw others under the ‘bad leader’ bus, we should try and reflect on our own shortcomings and how we can embark on a life-long journey of improvement.
And, it would be nice for us to have a few less hands shoot into the air the next time the 'How many of you have ever worked for a bad leader?' question is posed…