To Lead or Not to Lead?

We’ve all heard the well-worn cliché that “it’s lonely at the top.” And as Stephen Denning illustrates so well throughout The Secret Language of Leadership, leadership can be quite detrimental to the leader. As he points out, people don’t like change and will often take out their frustration on the agent of that change. He also points out that true leaders take on a great deal of risk for what they believe in, often gambling away the perks and security of a safe, traditional, “do-it-like-we’ve-always-done-it” approach. The stress involved can, and often does, take a toll on the physical and mental well-being of the leader. This all becomes greatly magnified when spouse and family are involved in a leader’s choice to buck the system and take an all-or-nothing stand for what he or she believes is possible.

So it is with particular interest that I noted Denning’s advice that people must make this decision consciously, “fully aware of the implications of the decision they are making.” You must ask yourself, “Am I ready for the challenges of leadership? Am I ready to commit to the worthwhile goal?”

I think the reality in my experience, however, is that most people take on leadership roles without fully considering or even caring much about the risk. Since storytelling is also a big part of Denning’s advice to leaders, I’ll do the same. My father made a rather dramatic mid-career change from lab technician at a major corporation to small-town police officer. He loved his new job, and quickly rose through the ranks to become a shift sergeant, a position that required a great deal of leadership skill and dedication. We all shared in dad’s excitement and pride in this achievement, but within a year he decided leadership just wasn’t for him despite his passion for police work, and so he returned to patrol.

To this day I remember how disappointed I was as a 12-year-old watching my hero at the kitchen counter, carefully cutting off the threads that held his sergeant stripes to his uniform shirts. I asked him then why he took the demotion, wondering if perhaps he couldn’t cut it or if he did something wrong. Recognizing my somewhat fragile mental state, my dad – normally rather gruff when it comes to heart-to-heart conversations – gently assured me that the chief of police thought he had done a great job as sergeant, that it was his decision to step down, and that he simply decided he didn’t like how he had to change to become a leader. He went on to serve as a patrolman and detective for 25 years, winning great respect and admiration from the community he served.

I think my dad’s situation and the decision he made regarding leadership are not uncommon. From early in life, we are taught to aspire to leadership in hundreds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways whether at school, on the field, or as part of numerous social organizations like the Boy Scouts or 4-H. Not surprisingly, I think people equate success in life with attaining positions of leadership. And in fact, already at 12, I saw my dad’s decision to reject leadership as some type of failure. But later in life, I came to appreciate and respect his decision and have thought of his example often when challenged to lead.

In my case, I approach this question in two parts: 1) Was I ready to lead in the past, and 2) Am I ready to lead in the future? In all honesty, my answer to the first question is “sometimes more than others.” As I have reported before, I left the ad agency I had worked at for 10 years to start Welland Laike thinking I had all the leadership skills necessary to be a success. Seventeen years later, I’m still in business, I still work with some fantastic people, I’ve greatly enjoy the variety and flexibility that go with owning a business, I’ve grown professionally, and I’ve had fun! On the other hand, I think my lack of preparation and limitations as a leader have greatly limited my ability to grow the company beyond the small shop that it is to the larger, dynamic agency I always thought it should become. Many times over the years I’ve thought, “maybe this is the best I can do.”

Then another leadership opportunity came knocking several years ago when a long-time client, a $500-million correspondent bank, asked me to lead a major rebranding effort. It was clear from the outset that the job would require me to successfully direct the technical aspects of the project, while winning first the support of the management team and eventually the hearts and minds of the employees. I accepted the challenge because I had worked with the marketing and executive team at the bank for almost 20 years, I was very familiar with the bank’s culture (the audience’s story per Denning), and I was well trained in the fundamentals of branding. After two years of research and development, we launched the new brand internally getting the attention, eliciting desire for a different future, and reinforcing with reason the fundamentals driving the new brand and positioning strategy. In fact, our narrative was actually built on the story of the famed explorers, Lewis and Clarke! In this case, I believe I was ready for leadership.

Despite the ups and downs of these two examples, I believe I am more ready for future leadership opportunities now than I ever have been in the past. I certainly owe part of that realization to the training I’ve received through both the Drake and University of St. Thomas graduate programs. But I think more important, I learned from my dad long ago and through my experiences over the years that leadership in and of itself is not my ultimate goal or the true measure of a life worth living. Instead, leadership should be approached very carefully and undertaken only as it fits into the ebb and flow of life. And perhaps, like the perfect storm, a leadership opportunity awaits that will truly inspire me, and the people important to me, to do even greater things.