Why is leadership so hard? In my view, the basics of leadership are very easy to summarize, yet the practical implications of these basic facts are unbelievably complex. All of these are essentially tautologies – or at least they are blindingly obvious. But despite this, these facts are the reasons why leadership is difficult.
These are “hard to apply, easy to dismiss” -type of facts.
1. Organizations consist of people
At the very core, there is nothing other than people. While some would say that “hell is other people” (Sartre), there is no way to avoid the fact.
Take any organization, look at the people whom are in it, and you can tell what that organization can do and what are its limitations. Leadership would be easy if we were robots or angels, but we aren’t.
2. Organizations attract the kinds of people attracted by what they are or appear to be
Where is an organization heading? Look at what the organization is perceived to be. Smart people want to work with smart people. Organizations that appear to reward people highly attract people whom want to be highly rewarded. Organizations that appear to be effective attract effective people.
In other words, success builds upon the perception or expectation of success. And in many cases, if an organization is attracting the “wrong” kinds of people, then it is likely to have some aspects that are attractive to the “wrong” kinds of people. This is quite problematic: for example, if you have a post in an organization which appears to be low-responsibility, then the people who volunteer for that task are likely to be low-responsibility people. Thus if you want to be effective, you ought to try to understand how the perceptions you create about the organization create expectations, which in turn influence reality.
3. People think and see things from their own perspectives
This one is particularly obvious, yet it is forgotten so often. In many situations the golden rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is wrong. Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. (George Bernard Shaw).
Whatever you think is easy, hard, important, unimportant, rewarding, essential or obvious – you will find that for some person, it will not be easy, hard, important, unimportant, rewarding, essential or obvious.
This, I think, is the greatest thing ever. Success comes from getting paid to do things that are easy and fun for you, and hard and uninteresting for many others. In the best case you can delegate things that are hard and uninteresting to you to people who consider them easy and fun. That is effective leadership.
On the flip side, many of the frustrations of leadership arise from this fact. Why doesn’t that person understand that something is important? Why isn’t something getting done? Well, that is because people perceive and prioritize things differently. Part of leadership is being able to let go of the need for everything to be done the way you would do it.
4. Organizations generally act according to their established methods of operation and organizational culture
Why is change so hard? Because any organization will be bound by what the people in it did and experienced before. If you are startup competing with a big organization, you can be sure that they will be bound by their earlier behavior. This is also why given enough time and practice doing a particular thing, an organization can become brutally effective at doing it in particular way. It is only when past behavior is no longer effective that the need for change becomes urgent.
Leadership is about more than just executing a plan. To lead, one must make change happen. And the way to accomplish this is to influence the way in which things are done in order to create new routines and new things that are considered to be important. This is why communication is a major part of leadership.