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The Unintentional Leader

Early in my military career I was taught that a unit will take on the characteristics of its leader. A sloppy unit will likely have an unkempt leader at its helm. A unit known for “bending the rules” will most likely be led by a person of questionable ethics. Why is this? Bob and I came across a working definition of leadership the other day, “positively influencing others to accomplish a specific goal,” and decided that the word positively was extraneous to the definition. You can negatively influence others and still be doing this thing called leadership. It might not be good leadership, but it is leadership nonetheless.  Leadership then, at its crux, is influencing others to accomplish something. Seems simple enough, but the kicker lies in the word influencing. This is the quintessential art of good leadership for there are many ways to influence others. Building a motivational climate, creating a culture, setting clear goals, setting an example, and the entire myriad of other ways we regularly discuss within this column all combine to do one thing: influence others to take action to accomplish our purposes. Seems vaguely self-serving doesn’t it? Well, of course it is; which is why good leadership always involves an ethical component. I’m reminded of the quote from Marvel Comic’s Spiderman series, “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” The fact that we leaders depend on the actions of others gives us a responsibility to treat those we lead with respect and to consider what effect our actions as leaders have on them.

Note that this definition of leadership does not include the word intentional. Is it possible to unintentionally lead others? It certainly seems to be. We can all probably think of examples of leaders who seem unaware that their actions affect the way others behave. Leaders who emphasize the bottom-line above all else are sometimes surprised when their followers cut corners or behave unethically to achieve results. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they probably didn’t intend for their team to act this way, but they certainly influenced their behavior. Leaders wondering why there is so much office gossip and back-stabbing behavior in the office may be completely unaware that they are setting the example when they engage in similar behavior. Not long ago a leadership student of mine told me of an epiphany he had: a leader is always on display, for better or worse. Good point! I’ll add that not only are you on display but you will be emulated, for better or worse.

Leaders also fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. Companies that institute competitive commission schemes for their sales force to boost sales performance may find instead that cross-talk and teamwork declines rapidly in what is now a dog-eat-dog sales environment. Leaders need to be mindful and aware that the levers of influence that they wield may influence people contrary to what was intended. As I often mention to my students, people are not predictable cogs in machinery but instead are endlessly varied, and messy, individuals! That’s what makes our jobs as leaders not only challenging but ultimately so rewarding.

I’ve written previously about Leader Awareness (See Leadership 101: Planes, Bombs, and…Leader Awareness?). While it may be true that leaders do unintentionally lead resulting in unintended results or consequences, being aware of this truism makes it easier to be much more deliberate as a leader. Be conscious of how your actions and words may affect your followers. Remember that your organization or team will ultimately become a reflection of you, so make sure it is seeing your good side!


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