Fighting the Gravitational Pull of Positional Leadership

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A little on leadership?

Many people enter the leadership world through a position and a title, but we must understand that just owning a title doesn't make you a leader. Being a leader is about influence. Your ability to lead resides in your ability to influence others around you to accomplish organizational objectives. It's true that titles do initially command a certain amount of influence, but this influence is short lived. All a title buys you is time, nothing more, nothing less. This time can either increase your level of influence and lead, or diminish it and fail.

One of the most common mistakes of a Leader, both new and tenured, is to fall into the gravitational pull of positional leadership. I use the term gravitational because as a new leader, it's pull represents the path of least resistance in the absence of training or experience. Many will learn, and escape, but others will remain committed to this methodology, unwilling to resist the pull through the belief that the approach is effective and is not to be challenged.

I suggest that this approach is fundamentally flawed based on my own experience and evolution as a leader. I made this mistake, and I took this journey, but I learned and was able to fight the pull. Whether you are positional, work for someone who is positional, or someone to whom a positional person reports to, commit deep thought to this topic. Properly understood, it will lead to your success; disregarded, it could lead struggle and hardship.

My story?

Before I had the opportunity to lead, I had the obligation to follow. As a follower within my organization, I viewed the leadership team, as the end all be all of positions. I viewed them as the powerful, core team of cogs that forced the business machine to function. I watched how they dressed, and admired the spoils of the position: nice offices, sophisticated two-way Skytel Pagers (before they became mainstream), expensive looking attach? bags concealing distressed leather planners concealing an arsenal of Mont Blanc's, but most of all, I enjoyed the parting of the crowd as this larger than life team moved through our production areas. Many felt respect, many felt fear, and many envied what they saw.

It's clear which category I fit into. I envied the position, title, and what those two items represented. I was fundamentally flawed in my admiration of these positionally anchored symbols of status. Only through a promotion and a lesson or two in life and leadership did I finally understand the errors of my ways.

I worked hard, and stood out above the crowd. My hard work paid off, and upon my first promotion to a senior position, I received my Skytel pager and master key. I'll never forget the day. I had my position, title, and symbols of power. I knew I had arrived.

My mistakes?

But as a positional leader, by belief system was challenged by the fact that my results were not always desirable.

As a positional leader, I assumed my position guaranteed a form of "packaged" loyalty, ensuring commitment and dedication from my subordinates. As John Maxwell stated in "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership", "He that leadeth and has no followers is merely taking a walk." One day while out leading I looked back, after giving a command or two, and realized that I was only taking a walk.

I also believed that as the chief, each member of my team was there to help me accomplish my objectives. My vision was to sit atop the metaphorical mountain dispensing my wisdom and wishes out upon the eager people who wished nothing more than to execute the plans, which they had no involvement in creating. One day while dispensing my wisdom to my people, I noticed I was alone. It seemed that I needed to get down off my mountain, and go find my people.

I thought as the leader, it was my job to rise above my people in the traditional way's in which I had seen my "mentors" do before. I did not approach my team in a constructive format. I did not believe in mutual solutions and problem solving, but rather with harsh decisive accountability. I can't tell you how many sups heard the mention of accountability, but never sincerely heard me ask how I could help.

Since I was clearly the one in charge, (I had my title, master key, and pager to prove it) I was afraid to admit when I was wrong or didn't know an answer. I believed that to admit I didn't know, was to admit that I wasn't the leader. I thought that asking for help lowered my status on the totem pole of importance and that if I wasn't careful, I would resemble those "people" that I tried to tower above. As a result, I made many mistakes that could have been avoided. An old boss once told me that if you try to fake an answer, the crowd would see right through you. I didn't care as long as they could see my pager.

I believed that position dictated response, and title was not to be argued with. As a result, when department heads handed down orders or harsh misguided words for members of my team, I didn't defend my people or clarify misunderstandings. My answer to the department heads was by usually agreeing that an action or response was unacceptable, and reassures them that I would address it with my team. I didn't work for my own people, so as a result, they didn't work as hard for me. My team saw me as not defending them, and as a result, did not view me as their leader. My team needed me, and I simply didn't realize that.

Now fast-forward a year. Even though I was positionally oriented, I saw great results through hard line tactics and accountability. Actually, we broke company and client records, but the problem was that I couldn't sustain the success. Slowly, after time, our results faded along with my influence. I didn't use my time to increase my influence so it withered. As performance slowly eroded on the program, corporate "Smoke Jumpers" descended up the site to determine barriers to performance, evaluate staff, and create a solutions oriented approach for improvement. During one of these meetings my team was questioned on what they thought the problem was. This was their opportunity to give back some of the heat that I had been giving them for years. While the failure of the program was due to any single person, when they had audience to hear their concerns, they didn't exactly sing my praises.

At this point, I learned what it meant to be positional, and realized that I fit the textbook definition. I realized that no matter our level of success, it could have been better. As for relationships, I realized if I was on fire on the production floor, I would get little assistance to put out the flames, although there would have probably been a crowd watching the warm glow has my career went up in flames.

That unit eventually closed and I was transferred to another segment within the same location. In this new position, I reflected, learned my mistakes, and was thankful to still be employed. I had a chance to start over with a new team, and work diligently at avoiding my prior habits, and mistakes. I fought the pull of being a positional leader and survived. Of course I made mistakes with my new team as well, but I'll save that story for another time. If you feel the pull, resist at all cost. Remember, your position buys you time, nothing more, and nothing less, and time is running out!

If you are interest in leadership theory and practices then you need to visit: Aubie Pouncey is a contributing writer and thinker for our organization. In addition, as a leader you may be interested in

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