Thoughts on Leadership

Apr 12, 1999

Leadership is one of those subjects that, if you really want to be good at it, tends to lead to a more philosophical approach toward work and life. It’s conventional wisdom in our business that if you have ownership transition, you also need to have leadership transition. But beyond appointing (or anointing!) our next generation of leaders, we don’t spend enough time teaching them how to think. Here are some thoughts I have on a variety of leadership topics: Leading, by definition, is not following. Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding this. Too many leaders in our business are proud that they don’t do anything unless it has already been tested and proven elsewhere. They don’t want to be leading-edge in their computing systems, marketing, or human resources management. They just want the best of what’s out there, the time-tested concepts that they can easily implement. That saves time and money and reduces risk. Sounds great in theory, but there’s a problem. If it’s been tested, it’s not new. You have nothing unique. You aren’t leading— you are at best a good imitator, a “me too.” Paternalism and condescension. “Paternalism,” when used to describe the culture of an A/E/P or environmental firm, rarely has a negative connotation. A lot of firms describe their leaders as paternalistic. What could be bad about paternalism, you ask? Plenty. When most people think of a paternalistic leader, they envision a kindly old soul. You know the type— he knows every employee’s name and the names of their family members. He never forgets a birthday. He’s nice. He talks well of everybody (at least outwardly). But not all of these people are what they appear to be. And if they are what they appear to be, they aren’t always appreciated. Some people just don’t like feeling dependent on the kindness or charity of someone else. In some cases, the very approval they come to expect from this paternalistic leader makes them feel bad about themselves (because they realize they need it). You’ve got to accept that not everyone will like you. It has come to my attention (repeatedly) over the years that not everyone is going to like me. And that doesn’t always make me feel great. But that doesn’t mean it’s not O.K., especially if you are the leader. You see, if you have strong opinions and you make them known, others may not agree. Some of those who don’t agree with you won’t like you because they don’t agree with you. Yet, how can you be an effective leader without having strong opinions that you share? It’s impossible! Or some people may not like you because you have to make the tough decisions, like who stays and who goes. Those who “go” probably aren’t going to like you. But that doesn’t mean that you didn’t do the right thing for the overall firm by letting that person go. If you are good, and your firm is number one in its field, others may not like you just because you are on top. The best are always ridiculed by those who want to be the best but aren’t. You can’t let that bother you! If the choice is doing the right thing and being a winner but being hated, versus not doing the right thing and not being a winner but being loved, I’ll go with the former every time!
One last point. You are never going to teach your successors how to lead if you don’t spend time with them. The irony is that time is in precious short supply, especially when it comes to leaders. But time is a lot like money. You won’t have much of it unless you invest it wisely. Leaders need to invest their time in their people if they ever want to be able to walk away from the job.
Originally published 4/12/1999

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