Industryweek 20753 Trump1

Being in Charge Doesn’t Make You a Leader

April 18, 2017
Organizations with a positive culture typically have effective leaders and effective followers. Both are essential in a successful organization.

When too many people lead instead of follow, chaos can ensue. The White House is a prime example.

President Donald Trump built an advisory team of mostly business leaders who are not used to following others — or in many cases, listening. Instead, they equate being in charge with leading. Decisions are either taking longer than is customary or they are pushed through without proper due diligence, resulting in many of the president’s early domestic actions backfiring.

The White House leadership is in flux as the president’s positions on issues such as Syria, NATO and China shift course and Stephen Bannon’s role appears to be diminished. President Trump’s National Security team, however, has shown itself to be competent, and with their leadership and good advice, the president acted like a leader as well and won praise in many quarters for his decisive action in Syria and Afghanistan.

Whether or not you agree with the president’s worldview, if he had more followers, his domestic plans would no doubt have been more carefully conceived and analyzed, and perhaps fared better.

Instead of listening and carefully weighing the impact that his decisions have on the people he serves, President Trump tried to ram through a Muslim travel ban that was twice blocked by the courts as unconstitutional, and an unpopular healthcare overhaul that would have led to fewer people being covered.

If you’ve never been a follower, your success as a leader isn’t as likely. You can manage, you can boss, you can be in charge—but you’ll never lead.  As someone who grew up a privileged child in a family business, Donald Trump was never required to follow; his real estate developer father essentially ensured his son’s success and a young Trump was cast as a business leader early on. He joined his father’s firm after graduating from college and it wasn’t long before he controlled the company.

I always felt I was a better naval officer because I had been an enlisted sailor first. Being an enlisted sailor taught me the practicalities of what it takes to get the job done. I learned how to make informed decisions and understand the ramifications of those decisions. Most importantly, I learned the difference between leading and being in charge.

In four different industries, I’ve either reported to the chairman of the board or CEO, and I’ve also served on more than 10 boards of directors or trustees, including chairing a hospital and medical center board. If given a choice of working alongside a number of superstars in a C-suite or a boardroom, or being an integral part of a talented team of united, unselfish professionals who always have your back and don’t just tell you want you want to hear, the choice is obvious. Without followers, there’s nothing left to lead.

My experiences have taught me several valuable lessons about leadership:

  • Every person in the organization has a role in its success.
  • Collaboration and problem-solving are more effective than dividing and conquering.
  • Being comfortable in your own skin is an asset; having an oversized ego is a liability.
  • Compromise is a sign of strength; refusal to cooperate is a sign of weakness.
  • If you think before you speak, people will listen.
  • There is a difference between getting things done, and busywork.
  • It’s important to know how to motivate others.
  • Empathy is a powerful motivator.
  • Praise in public; counsel in private.

A very valuable mindset to adopt is learning the importance of teamwork and working with others to get a task completed. Dedicated followers will often go the extra mile to support a leader they respect. A 2015 survey by McKinsey reported that “seeking different perspectives” and “supporting others” were two of the top behaviors effective leaders exhibited. Organizations with a positive culture typically have effective leaders and effective followers. Both are essential in a successful organization.

Remember, the C-suite or the Oval Office isn’t the only place you’ll find leaders. In fact, in my experience, some of the best ones are on the shop floor, in the field or behind the scenes.

Ritch K. Eich, former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, is the founder of Eich Associated, a management consulting firm, and is the author of three leadership books including his most recent TRUTH, TRUST + TENACITY. He is also the former board chair of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center, Thousand Oaks, and is a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve (ret). U.S. Senators Dan Coats and Richard Lugar cited him for exemplary leadership in the Congressional Record.

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