Many people tend to have a storybook understanding of how leadership works. We think of charismatic leaders energizing a throng with an inspiring speech. We think of bold actions that change the course of history in the blink of an eye.
One result of this shallow understanding is that people who are boisterous, loud, aggressive, and even obnoxious are often falsely identified as leaders. People tend to associate those traits with being powerful or forceful, which they assume is at the core of leadership.
In reality leadership is far more nuanced. To build something of value takes time, skill, and savvy; and no single person will somehow divine and implement solutions. It takes a multitude of people to do that.
But the most commonly overlooked or misunderstood aspect of leadership is how a leader sets the tone and creates the culture for an organization, whether that organization is a small business, a platoon, a classroom, or an entire nation. The leader’s words and deeds need not give direct instruction to a population in order to have significant influence and impact. There is far, far more to the effects of a leader than the direct results of her marching orders and commands.
Consider a leader, for instance, who speaks encouragingly of the future using words like “we,” “you,” and “our.” She articulates specific solutions and acknowledges the value of inclusion, diversity, and forging alliances. Her past and current actions reflect someone who is eager to help those who are less well off, and a willingness to learn from and listen to others.
Now, contrast that leader with someone who speaks almost exclusively in terms of “I” and “they,” in which he is glorified and “they” are demeaned and insulted. While he is anxious to point out problems, he rarely suggests a solution, and if he does, it is vague and pitted with hostile language. His past actions make it clear that while he is adept at elevating or protecting his own position, he has little interest in helping others.
Purely on a cultural basis, what would the effects be of these two different leadership styles? And here’s what I mean by “cultural basis”: An organization’s values, behaviors, and traditions as they pertain to realizing an overall vision and mission.
Regardless of the plan of action (or lack thereof) a leader shapes how followers will act, perform, behave, communicate, and interact with one another. Yes, leadership is about making hard decisions and taking risks, but how those decisions are made and the reasons for taking risks communicate to followers the kind of world they work and live in.
In fact, by simply not saying anything a leader shapes the culture. In the same way a leader who does not address a growing trend of staff showing up later and later in the day permits that behavior, so too does a leader permit any unethical behavior by not proactively condemning all unethical behavior and representing ethical behavior in his actions. Those with undeveloped moral integrity will constantly push for a morally and ethically corrupt agenda, and finding no significant resistance, they will make headway with their destructive efforts against the common good.
For good or bad, a leader embodies and shapes the culture. She establishes the style, convention, ideology, and attitudes of her followers. And not just for her closest allies. The influence seeps far and wide. It is the difference between an angry, obstinate mob and a healthy, competent community. The difference between people who try to force through their agenda with violence and hatred, and people who use intellect and empathy to build a better tomorrow.
Do not exalt a leader as a single person who can drive and implement change. No one person has that power. However, a single person does have the ability to shape and establish an ideology and culture for an entire population regardless of its size.