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Monday, April 17, 2017

Leadership - A Popularity Contest?

Several years ago, in perhaps a misdirected and naive venture into government service, I was attending a leadership development seminar attended by staff from across the public sector.  During the course of this seminar I ended up in a debate with another public servant which in its essence boiled down to the nature of leadership in a democracy.

While I have largely forgotten what caused us to go down this particular path, I recall putting forward the concept that I what personally looked for in a leader and how I expected them to lead thereafter was based on the power of their personal convictions. From my perspective, I expected them to lead and even shape the perspectives of the city, province, or country they led.  Ultimately, I wanted them to show me the courage of their convictions.


My "adversary", if that is what one could call him, had a relatively strong reaction to my position and suggested that such an approach could be construed as flying in the face of foundational democratic principles of modern Western society.  From his standpoint it was, and is, up to a democratically-elected leader to implement the wishes of the populace that elected him or her to power.  Extending this perspective, one might be inclined to suggest that opinion polls provide a mechanism for keeping a leader informed and directed during the course of their elected term.

As you can no doubt tell from the title to this blog post, I continue to have a decided bias against running any organization or business on the basis of opinion polls, engagement surveys or similar instruments.  But this position does place me in a bit of a quandary.  After all, as many of you who know me would come to understand, I'm very much a proponent of models that equate with the concept of servant leadership and engagement of staff.  So wouldn't, by definition, mechanisms like opinion polls be the very foundation of such a leadership commitment?

What gave further impetus for me to consider this issue of leadership and stakeholder direction were a couple of articles focused on opinion polls on provincial and national issues.  Within my own province of Alberta there is certainly a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair in the midst of the most significant economic downturn in recent memory coupled with leadership by the New Democratic Party (NDP).  The NDP has a decidedly different philosophy and approach to leadership than the Conservative dynasty of 40+ years tenure which they replaced.  In this particular time and place an opinion poll of the populace noted that the #1 priority of Albertans was to reduce taxes closely followed by a desire to see reduced spending, a lower provincial deficit, while at the same time maintaining services such as health and education.  As the author of the news article that focused on these results said "It's a contradictory bag of responses."


So in the absence of committed leadership, founded at least on one's own developed principles, what wind should blow you what direction?

In a national article that came out on the same day as the provincial issue noted above, an assessment was delivered which noted how out of sync people's perspectives were with the facts on the ground.  In this case, the particular issue was the feeling of a "majority" of Canadians (or at least those responding to the poll) that the middle class dream most of us aspire to was slipping away.  This despite the fact that median household incomes have steadily risen over the past 20 years.  So how then could we end up with such a discrepancy of feelings versus fact?  And how we might then expect our leaders to respond?

Without a doubt one of the major factors in the usefulness or believablity (credibility?) of such polls comes in how the questions are framed or asked.  In all too many cases opinion polls and public consultations are simply crafted to give leaders the answers they are looking for.  On the other hand, we might also just need to be clear about what such opinion polls are actually telling us - or not.  In one respect, opinion polls are probably telling us and leaders what people are actually thinking and feeling.  However, and back to the potential basis of my dispute with my government colleague - is what the public (or any other stakeholder group) thinking where we should be leading them?  Are they truly informed on the issue at hand?  Feelings, assumptions, and "alternative facts" should not, in my opinion, form the basis for significant initiatives, policy directions, and strategic directions.

In this case, "That's how you feel because that's how you feel", comes across as a very dangerous position to lead from.  This can lead, and has led, to very reactionary changes in direction by business leaders, organizations and whole countries - pick your favorite example.


So while we all collectively are quite capable of believing in a whole range of things that are not true, I believe it is up to principled and courageous leaders to stand for something.  While you might run the risk of being mistaken or being on the wrong side of any given issue, I would rather see leadership based on values and facts than one based on the latest opinion poll or engagement survey.  No good change came easy.  Leadership is neither easy nor for the faint of heart.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost
______________________________

Greg Hadubiak, MHSA, FACHE, CEC, PCC
Executive Coach/Senior Consultant
hadubiak@wmc.ca

Helping leaders realize their strengths and enabling organizations to achieve their potential through the application of my leadership experience and coaching skills. I act as a point of leverage for my clients. I AM their Force Multiplier.
 



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