This piece is the fifth installment in a six-part series on leadership character by West Point’s Col. Eric Kail.
Check out the biographies from any “who’s who” list of the most successful leaders, and you will find an impressive catalog of achievements. That’s because most leaders are competitive people driven by challenges; they play to win and usually do.
But in doing so, many leaders overshadow their peers. What would really be impressive is if they had made everyone around them successful as well.
We have a growing problem in leadership today: Many leaders are narcissistic pretenders who selfishly lead their organizations right into the ground because they do not lead collaboratively. These selfish leaders feel threatened by other leaders far too often, so they needlessly miss out on valuable opportunities. Their vision stops at their level of the organization, and it is them and their followers against the world.
Leadership can be lonely, but only if you make it so. We are far less independent than we think we are, and we consistently underestimate the ways other leaders and their organizations influence our plans. Many failed leaders only realize the interactive complexity of their environment when they are victims of it.
The zero-sum game is for short-minded leaders. For those with a long view, collaboration is fundamentally an opportunity, not a threat.
As leaders, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We also serve alongside them every day; we just do not give them the credit they deserve. Increasing our collaboration with other leaders allows us to achieve more than we ever could alone.
It took me 10 years of leading in the Army, and the patient work of two mentors, to understand that my leaders needed me and my peers to be successful, not just me. My immaturity kept me from understanding that what I needed from my subordinate leaders was precisely the same as what my leaders needed from me: teamwork.
Once I began sharing good ideas with my peers, three things became very clear. First of all, I was not as smart as I thought I was. My peers often had better ideas than I did. Second, once we stopped hoarding valuable resources and began sharing, we suddenly all had more than we needed. And third, I realized that I enjoyed watching my peers do well, and that taking pride in their accomplishments did not cost me a thing. We could all succeed together.
I often hear from senior leaders, those selecting future executives, that an employee’s performance at one level is not necessarily potential for the next. This vexing issue gets worse as the level of responsibility increases.
Leading at the next level requires expanding our view beyond ourselves. As leaders, we need to remove ourselves from the center of the leadership equation and let go of the need to receive the credit we think we so richly deserve. The challenge is to remain hungry for daily excellence without letting our competitive nature run wild.
Do not expect collaboration unless you practice it. You are fooling yourself if you think that you can be magnanimous with your followers while backstabbing your peers. Our subordinate leaders take their cues from us regarding how they should behave with each other. If you have a maverick you are trying to rein in because he or she does not play well with others, try practicing the behavior you are seeking.
Take stock of what you reward in others. We love to talk about the importance of teamwork and then hand out trophies for individual achievement. Instead, recognize people for sharing ideas just as much as you celebrate their achievements. You may also need to take the time to explicitly show your subordinate leaders how their efforts and the efforts of others contribute to overall excellence from your perspective.
Finally, check out your bio. What does it say about your collaborative capacity as a leader?
Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
More in this series:
Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter: