Excerpted from the book The Leadership Contract: The Fine Print to Becoming a Great Leader by Vince Molinaro. Copyright © 2013 by Vince Molinaro. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc.
So the question I’m left with is this: What’s it going to take for leaders to truly understand the obligations of leadership? Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman says that leaders today need to be held accountable for their actions and bad behavior just like other professionals in health care or law. When their actions or negligence cause harm, she argues, leaders should be sued for “leadership malpractice.” She cites the many CEOs who leave companies after years of poor performance without suffering any consequence, leaving with generous packages ensuring their own financial security even though they have failed to protect employees and stockholders. Leadership needs to be considered its own profession, like medical doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Like these professions, leadership needs its own set of professional standards.
Although the idea has merit, I believe we need to start with something more fundamental. We need to be more explicit in helping leaders understand what their obligations of leadership are and what they must do to live up to them. Take a moment to reflect on your own leadership experience. Think about the first time you took on a leadership role. Did you ever really stop to think about the obligations you were assuming as you took on that role. I would go further and suggest that your boss or organization probably didn’t sit you down to say, “Listen, here’s what you are obligated to as a leader.” I’m sure that rarely happens. If you are like most leaders I work with, you probably had to figure it out on your own. Now, most leaders are pretty smart people, and eventually, they might get it on their own. But what if they never do? I don’t believe we can just rely on happenstance. We need to start getting more deliberate about becoming clear on our obligations as leaders.
I’ll also let you in on a secret so that you don’t have to figure this one on your own: In order to be effective, sometimes you will need to separate how you feel personally about your obligations as a leader. This is an essential leadership skill you must develop. It’s an ability to separate your personal feelings from your professional obligations. It takes a strong person to be able to have this level of personal insight, but it’s going to be crucial to your success as a leader, especially as you move into more senior level roles.
A great example of this comes from an old West Wing episode. Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is the president of the United States. He’s dealing with one of his biggest dilemmas as a president. There is an inmate on death row, and Bartlet is under great pressure to intervene and give a stay of execution. He reaches out to many to get advice. He asks an old personal friend–a priest, played by Karl Malden, to visit him. When the priest arrives, he is in awe of the Oval Office. After some small chitchat, the priest asks President Bartlet, “How do you want me to call you, Jed or Mr. President?” The president pauses and says, “Mr. President.” He feels compelled to explain his reasons. He insists that it is not about ego. Instead, as a president he has to make very important decisions: which disease gets funding or which troops are sent into battle. He continues by saying that, when confronted with these kinds of decisions, it is important for him to think of the office, rather than the man. It’s a brilliant moment in the episode and a brilliant line. It demonstrates a leader who never loses sight of his broader professional obligations. He realizes it’s not about him; it’s about the role he has and he needs a way to separate the man from the office so that he can effectively fulfill his obligations.
I have personally found this idea helpful in my own leadership role, not in such a dramatic way as in the previous example, but important nonetheless. I remember a shift I had in my own mind during one team meeting. We were debating a strategy we were working on. My team is filled with smart and passion consultants who vigorously position their ideas. In this discussion, we were reaching a bit of an impasse. As I watched the discussion, I realized that I was pushing hard to get my own idea across. Then I stopped myself and asked, “What’s my obligation right now as a leader?” The answer immediately came to me. My obligation was not to sell my idea to the team. In fact, as the team leader I could have just dictated what I wanted, but I knew that wasn’t what was best for our business. My obligation in that moment was to create the best possible conditions for my management team and me to think through our strategy. That was my obligation as the leader of the team. It was my obligation to my CEO, my board, and our clients and shareholders. This ability to be able to separate the person (what you are personally vested in) from your professional leadership obligations is critical for you to master. The first step begins with having the clarity on the core obligations you must live up to as a leader. That’s where we are going next.