A leader is not an advisor

Leadership?“I believed … that a leader could operate as successfully as a kind of advisor to the organization.  I thought I could avoid being a “boss.”  Unconsciously, I suspect, I hoped to duck the unpleasant necessity of making difficult decisions, taking responsibility for one course of action among many uncertain alternatives, of making mistakes and taking the consequences.  I thought that maybe I could operate so that everyone would like me…I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It took a couple years, but I finally began to realized that a leaders cannot avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid responsibility for what happens to his organization.” [Emphasis mine]

From “On Leadership” by Douglas McGregor, quoted in Productive Workplaces Revisited by Marvin R. Weisbord.

4 Replies to “A leader is not an advisor”

  1. What makes you write this now? It is, indeed a little lonely at the top. For me, I’ve tried to hire smart capable people to be on my team, which make the job a little easier. But in the end, it’s up to the Boss to decide the direction, for better or worse. A heavy burden sometimes. I think the best activity to watch this in action is “emergency preparedness” games. Ever seen them in action? Now that’s pressure!

  2. Michelle, I found this quote months ago and it resonated with me. It’s very hard to hold to an idea about the right direction when facing resistance. Privately, a leader has to admit to him or herself that the choice of direction is not a sure thing. Resistance heightens the sense of uncertainty, but it’s not a topic for discussion with the people one leads. I chose the quote because I needed to recall the importance of living with the uncertainty of setting direction in my own sphere. Listening to reactions of our people does not mean changing direction to make them comfortable.

  3. So right about resistance adding to the uncertainty!

    Find the direction, make the agenda, drive it every day!

    People will come around in many cases, and it’s not unusual, in my experience, for people to forget they resisted an idea, or even take credit for the direction / agenda! The matter of “uncertainty” not being a topic for discussion with the people one leads is an interesting one. I agree that you HAVE to send solid, consistent message to the group. But talking with the senior team about shared leadership issues, including uncertainly, can be important and necessary for “appropriating” the messages for some of the more challenging work that we are doing these days. Disagree? Happy to hear your perspective!

  4. I was thinking about sticking to a clear direction. Leaders can have doubts, but unless a set of objective facts force us to change direction, then obstacles, including resistance, need to be addressed in due course – that is, when they arise and consistently.

    I think that expressing uncertainty about methods of achieving our agenda is a different matter. Authentic leaders don’t pretend they have all the answers, or that they are right all the time. There’s room for discussion. Trusted colleagues be sought out and influence leaders.

    However, it seems inauthentic not to challenge those who don’t support the direction and the vision of the future. This is why recruiting and selection are so important in high performing organizations. Their people are on the bus that’s on the road to a destination that the leader chose, shaped, and sold. As we’ve said, bringing everyone along is the aim, but everyone must decide for him- or herself whether they’re staying here or going on this most excellent trip.

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