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With another new year in our doorstep it is proper to pause for a moment and to reflect on what we have done and achieved during the past year or so. Have we been able to make a difference, have we taken responsibility to move things forward, have we taken leadership at moments when it was necessary to make a next step?

We looked at the issue of leadership several times before in this column and concluded that leadership can be exercised by everyone, regardless of position. Whether you are a politician, a CEO of a multinational, a small business owner, a teacher, father or mother, we all have the freedom to take our own responsibility and live by principles that guide our personal leadership. Real leaders have something in common and that is something which is enclosed in their character. Most of the time however, when people discuss leadership they refer to the “great man” or to his or her personality, style or charisma. There are many examples of people, who have a great style in their presentation, who have charisma, but there is more that makes somebody a leader, somebody others would want to follow. Let us examine the reasons why people follow others a bit closer. Different motivational and psychological factors are at play here.

Some people follow others out of fear. They are afraid of what might happen to them if they don’t do what they are asked to do. This is what is referred to as coercive power. Here the leader has created a fear in the follower that either something bad will happen or something good will be taken away if he or she doesn’t comply. So out of fear of bad consequences, people go along or simply pay lip service loyalty, in the beginning that is. But their commitment is superficial and their attitude can easily turn into sabotage when “no one is looking” or when the threat is no longer there. There are ample examples of workers who resign because they feel mistreated and on the last day at the office they make sure they wipe their computer clean and destroy their records, including all useful contacts, so as to harm the company.

Another reason why people follow others is because of the benefits that come to them if they do. This is what is called utility power, because the power in the relationship is based on the useful exchange of goods and services. The followers have something the leader wants (skills for instance) and the leader has something the follower wants (money for instance). Here followers operate with the belief that the leader can and will do something for them if they maintain their part of the deal by doing something for the leader. This kind of power is usually exercised in most organizations and businesses around the world.

A third reason to follow a leader is different in kind and degree from the two described above. It is based on the power some people have with others because others tend to believe in them and in what they are trying to accomplish. The leader is trusted, respected and honoured. This kind of leaders is followed because others want to follow them, want to believe in them and their cause, and want to do what the leader wants. This is not blind faith or mindless obedience; no, this is knowledgeable, wholehearted, uninhibited commitment. This is principle centred power.

Such leaders may be found anywhere. Think about the people you wanted to follow in your life. It could be a teacher, your employer, a family member or a friend. It could be somebody who gave you an opportunity to succeed or excel or who encouraged you when things looked bad. Whatever they did, they did it because they believed in you and you responded with respect, loyalty, commitment and a willingness to follow.

Now each of the types of leadership power described above have a different foundation and each will lead to different results. The leader who controls others through fear will find out that the control is reactive and temporary. It is gone when the leader is gone. It encourages suspicion, deceit, dishonesty and in the long run, dissolution.

Utility power is based on equity and fairness. Followers follow as long as they feel that they are receiving fairly for what they are giving. Relationships based on utility power often lead to individualism rather than teamwork, as each individual is reinforced for working from his or her own perspectives and desires. At best, utility power reflects a willingness to stay in a business or personal relationship, as long as it has a payoff for both parties.

Principle centred power is rare. It is the mark of quality, distinction and excellence in all relationships. It is based on honour with the leader honouring the follower and vice versa. The follower trusts the leader, is inspired by the leader, and believes in the leader’s goals. With principle centred power, ethical behaviour is encouraged because loyalty is now based on principles and on the desire to do the right things.

So all of us have the opportunity and responsibility to lead. We can lead at home, in the family, at school, in church, in the business, at the office, anywhere where we enter into relationships with others. I challenge all of us to examine the type of leader we are, what kind of power we exercise and what contributions we make to the further development of our immediate environment and this great nation . In doing so I leave us with a quote that may encourage us to do so:

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, President of the USA


Suggested reading:

“Principle Centred Leadership” by Stephen R. Covey

“The Spirit of Leadership” by Dr. Myles Munroe