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America Is a Democracy But Leadership Is Not

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My favorite definition of leadership is by Harvard professor Marshal Gans. He says that leadership is taking responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. I like this definition because it amplifies one of the most important tools a leader needs to be successful: a clear vision.

[Related: 6 Mistakes Even the Smartest New Managers Make]

Not too long ago I was coaching a new manager, Emily, who was charged with developing a sales strategy for her group. She prided herself on her collaboration skills, and so began the process by inviting her entire team to a kick-off meeting where she would solicit their ideas about what the strategy should be. The meeting was a disaster. She didn’t understand why everyone was inundating her with so many questions. She felt like they just wanted her to tell them what to do. This made her frustrated because she believed the best answers could be innovated collectively. She felt her team was being lazy.

Emily made a mistake that I sometimes see in new leaders. Their commitment to building consensus and including all voices (which is a good thing!) leads to chaos. What people need most in times of uncertainty is clarity. And it’s a leader’s job to provide it.

Do you want to be the kind of leader that effectively enables others? Establish, own, and communicate your vision.

[Related: How Soma CEO Mike Del Ponte Creates a Vibrant Work Culture]

Emily’s launch would have been much more effective if she had walked into the kick-off meeting with a definitive answer to the question “Ultimately, what are we trying to achieve?” There might be many paths to get to the destination, and it’s wonderful to solicit ideas about what those paths could be. But the leader must begin by defining the destination in a compelling way. For Emily, that might have been “Our goal is to be #1 in the region for the first time in our group’s history.”

There is no doubt that good leaders involve others in the process of achieving a shared purpose. But they take responsibility for determining what that shared purpose is. Good leaders know when democracy works and when it doesn’t.

Photo: Getty Images

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