• Bill Petrie

In Defense of Leadership

Grace is a two-way street

Leadership is one of those topics that one can find endless articles, theories, and quotes on if you simply put “leadership” in your Google machine – portable or otherwise. While I’m not sure I’m any more or less qualified than anyone else to write on the topic, I felt compelled to after seeing a post on social media last week. In short, the post shared an experience someone had with an ineffective leader.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the post that trigged me as much as the comments that followed for the next hour before the post was taken down. While many of the comments were of the predictable “I can’t stand my boss” variety, quite a few went further to suggest that “leadership corrupts people” and “people are not meant to manage other people.” In all of the comments, there wasn’t a single one supporting leadership of any kind.

As someone who has both led and managed people, this surprised and saddened me.

Being a manager or a leader is not an easy job regardless of industry. Before being elevated to management, I thought it would be a pretty cushy gig. I assumed it would fun to get paid to tell people what to do and how to do it. As you might imagine, I couldn’t have been more misguided. As French writer Voltaire famously said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Like any employee, I learned on the job, which is a nice way of saying I screwed up, made mistakes, and cost my employer money in more ways than I care to admit. I think this is where the disconnect is: many assume that the person elevated to a leadership position knows exactly what to do and when to do it. The reality is not that simple.

Effective leadership will mean different things based on several factors, including:

  • Company financial resources

  • Competitive landscape/industry

  • Effectiveness of human capital

Since I never met an analogy I didn’t like, let me use one here. When someone is the head coach of a professional football team, their success is primarily based on several elements such as the salary cap, the division they play in, and the players’ abilities. If a head coach is saddled with a mediocre quarterback and there is no room in the salary cap to upgrade, there is a good chance success will be limited until the coach can get the right quarterback to execute the overall plan. The business world isn’t any different.

Over time, I learned from the many mistakes I made and (hopefully) have become much better at leading and managing people. Looking back on the comments from that post, I find it interesting that the most critical comments came from someone who has never been put in the position to lead to truly understand the challenges that go with it.

Just like a leader needs to have grace with people on the team, employees need to realize that leaders are human and will make mistakes - that's just not realistic. Even so, mistakes should be used as a tool for learning so they aren’t repeated. However, because humans are involved, mistakes will continue to happen; the key is the leader/manager needs to own them, apologize for them, learn from them, and not repeat them.

Grace is something that should extend to both employees and leaders. Without that continual flow of forgiveness and understanding, the scales will be out of balance, resulting in disharmony within the organization. To be clear, this always starts with the leader. As the author of Leadership Is an Art, Max Dupree wrote, “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”


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