Aristotle once said that “nature abhors a vacuum” and I’m going to borrow that concept here, but apply it to leadership. What I mean is that leadership always happens, and if you abdicate your proper role as leader, some other “leader” will fill it. And often that’s a disaffected employee. In other words, light eliminates darkness…and leadership eliminates employee mischief. Or at least some of it.
As humans, we need to contribute in the context of a certain structure. You could think of this as boundaries around a sandbox: “I want credit for what gets created in here. I also want to know who controls my destiny at this place [my manager], who else I’m responsible for [those I manage], what is expected of me, and what it takes to get fired around here.”
On that last point, my podcast co-host, Blair Enns, often points to this article by David Maister on how the best organizations have specific expectations of its people, and those are actually enforced. If you’re a bookkeeper and you steal from the firm’s accounts, you’re going to get fired and possibly prosecuted. If you undermine another employee by lying about them or spreading false implications, what happens? Well, you as the leader, if you know about it, need to have one of those famous little “difficult conversations”. Otherwise, all the little transgressions that fly against the stated values of your firm are going to pile up, and eventually they’ll squeeze the humanity right out of the place. And the culture will start rotting. And people will start losing some of the other reasons why they choose to work there, and the only reason left is money, so they’ll ask for more of it.
Remember the guy who loved riding bicycles but hated his corporate job? So he quit the F5000 employer and started a bike shop. But it turned out that his love of riding had very little to do with a successful bike shop, which was more about funding inventory, marketing, managing people, having a lawyer on speed-dial, and all the rest. His love of biking led to interesting discussions with patrons (when he had the time for that), but his success depended largely on his leadership ability.
That’s true for you and me, too. The technical stuff we know (the knowledge we transfer) is pretty easy, but it’s the other stuff that’ll get ya. I’d like to articulate that into a phrase:
Your abilities set the floor for your potential.
Your leadership sets the ceiling.
You could have all the abilities in the world, but you’ll struggle and be held back if you aren’t a good leader.
Like that illustration above, you’re going to hit that ceiling unless your leadership ability keeps growing, too.
Now back to the idea that nature (and leadership) abhors a vacuum. When you aren’t leading like the firm needs you too, here are a few of the things that can happen instead:
- That number two (or three or four) with some latent evil that hasn’t surfaced yet will step into the vacuum and encourage the chatter about your lack of leadership. They will step in to provide guidance, but what they are really doing is building a perverse loyalty. Once that voting bloc gets big enough, they’ll have sufficient sway to make your life miserable. Eventually they’ll leave, but they’ll take other people, and maybe even clients, with them.
- When your leadership doesn’t provide enough structure, people don’t derive their significance from what they accomplish as much as who they are aligned with. It’s a loyalty game instead of a performance game, and it never ends well.
- Rumors and conspiracies. (No further explanation needed here.)
- No team pulling in the same direction, because no champion has pointed in that direction and said “follow me there!”
That vacuum will not go unfilled! But I’d like to repeat the main point, here: your abilities will get you to a certain point, but you can always hire folks with even deeper abilities than your own. It’s the leadership that they’re screaming for, and someone’s going to offer it.
Might as well be you. Unless you want to work for someone else again.