Many people mistake being a leader with being powerful, or above others in strength, virtue, and/or character. Others think it’s about being more skilled or more knowledgeable than the people around them. They tend to think that in order to lead you have to have something that people around you want and don’t have. In order to keep your position, you need to keep that leg up, keep that thing that they don’t have out of their reach. Because as long as you have it and they don’t, they will have to remain at your feet.
While this isn’t technically wrong, many power structures are built on this model, it isn’t a very long-sighted one. Eventually, someone with even more knowledge will come along and displace you. There will always be somebody better, more experienced, richer, or more powerful than you. And as long as your grip on those beneath you is based on their not having something that you do, then you will eventually fall. But, there is another way of being a leader that is not built on suppressing those around you. This kind of leader is one who pulls others toward him instead of pushing people under him. This kind of leader is one who will last because people respect him. Because they want to follow him.
This kind of leader doesn’t get his authority from keeping others in the dark, but from trying to bring them into the light. He’s a teacher. Instead of using his expertise as a weapon to point at those under him, he uses it as a prize to pull people alongside him. Instead of being threatened by the idea that someone could surpass him, he welcomes the idea. Instead of his eyes being on himself, they are on his goal. And most importantly, he doesn’t see himself as a leader at all. He thinks of himself as and even acts like, a servant. He cares for those under him, trying constantly to bring them to his level. His end goal is a developed community not an army of minions.
That’s all well and good to say, but practically speaking, how does somebody who is obviously in a state of power over others (an employer for example) practice this sort of leadership without any sort of duplicity? He knows he is above them, so how can he act like he isn’t?
One of the easiest ways to avoid dominating others is by not taking a condescending position with them. As obvious as this sounds on paper, it’s surprisingly easy to fall into this in practice. After all, we are all human, and we all like feeling above others.
Sometimes when you are in the place of the “expert” and are tasked with explaining something to the newbie or a potential client there is an inexplicable urge to complicate things. We all want to make our job sound much harder than it is. So we talk about it with as much technical jargon and insider language as possible. We want to look like we are trying to explain our job when what we are really doing is overcomplicating it to keep others in the dark. We want them to look up to us and our incomprehensible “expertise.”
Many politicians are masters of this. They use legal vocabulary to describe simple policies in order to both confuse those on the outside and to paint themselves as reliable experts. But it’s such an easy trick, bosses use it all the time, as well as parents. Even the TV repairman will talk over your head to justify his price.
This is incredibly easy for you to do, and imperative that you don’t. This trick works for a time, but will eventually become obvious to everyone. They will soon realize that you are talking down to them, and resent you. Instead, you should talk to them like they are equals, working hard to make sure they understand. Respect them. You shouldn’t laugh if they don’t understand something in ten minutes, that took you ten years to understand. Keep it simple, but not condescending. Relate to them, but not with any edge to your voice.
Especially when you really are an expert, it is very hard to not be condescending to those who truly aren’t. If you are an electrical expert, and you have to rewire a house with somebody who isn’t, not seeing eye to eye can be incredibly frustrating. You know you are right, but you can’t play the expert card without sounding stuck up. It’s very easy to fall straight into an argument, and slam them with reason after reason for your way of doing things. But by doing this, you are all but asking for a fight. Your reasons won’t matter to your partner, as much as your presentation of them. They won’t care about your credentials if they feel like you are talking down to them. They won’t even care if they’re wrong, they’ll dig their heels in simply because they don’t like your tone of voice.
Instead of dominating the conversation, you should listen to them, even if you know they are wrong. Treat them like an equal. Hear them out, and then respectfully disagree. Explain to them the parts in their plan that you don’t think will work, but also be sure to mention the parts that will. Approach their solution with a problem-solving sort of attitude, not a critical one. Invite them to help you improve their plan. Work out the bugs together.
Leading Isn’t the Goal
Leadership is not actually an end in itself. You don’t lead so that people will follow you, you lead so that you can reach an outside goal. And when that is your mission, what you really want is for you and those around you to reach some point, leadership becomes a lot easier. It is no longer about power, hierarchy, or pride. It’s about a mission. This kind of leadership requires a certain kind of equality. An environment of respect, and comradery. A vision for working with others to accomplish more together.