Issue 2.7 | February 2011

In this Article: how leadership that influences has to begin with leadership that takes courageous initiative.

by Jonathan Wilson

It is commonly said that leadership is influence.  Influence, however, is an outcome.  Before it results in influence, leadership is a set of actions.  The first act of leadership is obedience: obedience to what is right.

In our time, the language of obedience is distasteful.  At the sound of this word we probably imagine an authoritarian leader giving orders and expecting to be obeyed.  There’s a good reason the majority of us have reservations about authoritarian leadership: a leader who is a law unto himself or herself leads with self-interest.  Self-interest innately contradicts the purpose of leadership, which is to serve a cause and those achieving it (see Issue 2.3).  Paradoxically, this is precisely why leadership has to begin with obedience to what is right: unless you are to become a demi-god and tyrant, you have to be true to something greater than yourself.

Because we associate leadership with influence, we think of leadership actions accordingly.  Actions that influence include vision-casting, story-telling, strategic planning, team-building, and decision-making.  But such actions ring hollow unless they flow out of the leader’s demonstrated obedience to what is right.  In other words, leadership that influences has to begin with leadership that takes initiative – initiative that flows out of a conviction about what matters most.  An endeavour is weak if its leader (or leadership team) has not already embodied the cause they represent.  The recent movements in Tunisia and Egypt would not have found their feet but for the initiative of just a handful of leaders, whose courageous action inspired others to act courageously, and eventually the movement swelled like rapidly rising flood-waters.

Here we find another paradox of leadership.  All subsequent leadership actions have to be team-oriented (if one is to mobilize a movement of people to achieve a significant outcome), but the first act of leadership – taking initiative – is utterly personal.  It is often lonely.  No-one can do it for you.  And it may be that no-one does it with you – at least at first.  For precisely this reason, the first act of leadership is not just obedient; it is courageous.

Right vs. Risk

The hardest situations in which to take the lead are those that appear to expose us to the greatest risk.  For a leader, risk to one’s influence is particularly threatening.  That is why politicians are known for vacillation and compromise: influence is their primary currency.  In truth, however, influence built on courageous leadership has the most lasting power.  Hosni Mubarak knows this.  He is an easy target, however.  I can think of numerous times where I have hesitated or failed to do the right thing, because I cared more for myself than for the cause (and for the people that cause represented).

While obedience to what is right can be courageous, courageous leadership is not demonstrated in just the grand things in life.  In fact, it is more likely to be tested, and proven, in the small things.  The following story is a very personal illustration of this.

At one time I was a Director of Leadership Development, when my organization hired a new national CEO, to whom I reported.  He was smart, charismatic and creative.  Over the course of his first year, however, it became increasingly evident that he also had a bullying and autocratic leadership style.  His failure to consult led to strategically ill-informed decisions.

Eventually, I confronted him, respectfully but frankly.  Yet despite the privacy of our interactions, the rumour-mill rapidly got to work and I found myself vilified among my colleagues.  Some even fingered me as an “enemy”.  By this stage the board was investigating matters.  Some of its directors also had concerns about the CEO.  At this point I decided I’d done for the organization all I legitimately could as a direct report, and since resolution didn’t appear to be close, I requested, and was granted, a six-month study leave.

Although my choices exposed me to a degree of risk, it was difficult for me to think in those terms.  What compelled me to act as I did was the tremendous risk I saw to the future health of this organization whose work I believed in.  As a result of my actions, I gained notoriety and lost friends.  This wasn’t easy but I had to trust that I’d acted in the best interests of those concerned.  For six months I quietly studied and wrote.

Three months into my leave, the international CEO phoned me: “Jonathan, the international board wishes to appoint you to the international executive, as executive vice president of leadership development.  Are you interested?”  I had, it turned out, not lost credibility in the eyes of the international leadership (perhaps because, in the months I had been away, the situation in our national office had become increasingly troubling).  I accepted the post and, by the time I returned to the office, my former boss was gone.

In the short term, I lost both reputation and valued relationships.  That I was eventually vindicated was, I hope, an affirmation that I had acted on what truly mattered.  It took time, but I was able to rebuild almost all of the relationships damaged through this experience.  My new role expanded my influence from South Africa to eleven countries in Africa and several in Europe and North America.

Mine is a small story, and there will be others with more objectivity who can point out the mistakes I must certainly have made at that time.  Even so, there are many examples of sung and unsung leaders from history which affirm that before leadership is influence, leadership is obedience: the courageous initiative to act according to what is right.

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