You have been recommended to read leadership books. Many are written based on the reflections and experiences of a single individual. What should you take from such books? What can you learn from activities of a single individual? What should you do, or perhaps, what shouldn’t you do?
I recently read two very different books but both biographies of world leaders.
The first book, called ‘The Emperor’, was written by Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinksi. The Emperor tells the story of Haile Selassie who became leader and Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The book describes his leadership beginning in 1960 after an attempted coup failed to overthrow his leadership. The book is reportedly based on personal interviews of individuals within the palace who closely observed the Emperor.
The Emperor never wrote anything down and never signed anything. Subordinates were provided only vague instructions and always verbally. Subordinates were blamed if events turned out badly. Any blame was often ascribed to subordinates failing to follow the Emperor’s instructions. Of course, without clear direction, it was hard for subordinates to know how to proceed.
Access to the leader was vital to prestige and power within the palace. Access was based on loyalty, not effectiveness or skill. Official roles meant little. The ear of the leader was literally paramount as all meetings occurred alone with the leader. Those in favour followed behind the leader as he walked the palace, providing information for the Emperor and straining to hear whispered instructions. The Emperor encouraged gossip and the disparagement of others. There were no group meetings and no attempt at consensus. Those in favour were constantly uncertain about what had been said about them or what they should tell the leader about others. Those in favour were therefore pitted against each other for influence. Small errors or failure usually resulted in ostracization from access to the Emperor or even worse, banishment from the palace.
The Emperor controlled all financial decisions. There was no clarity about rules for allocation of money. Access to the leader was the only route to resources and decisions for funding were haphazard and based on favour, not merit.
The leader often promised one thing but delivered another. This and the frequent shifting of favour lead to uncertainty and hesitancy to proceed. The concern over possible punishment meant little new initiatives were attempted.
Leaders were only too willing to hide bad news from the Emperor given that such news often lead to dismissal. Furthermore, even the Emperor himself did not appear able or willing to confront the reality of the situation. A famine was leading to terrible hardship in parts of the country, but officially there was little or no acknowledgement. In 1974, the Emperor was deposed and his rule ended. The Emperor ruled Ethiopia for many years. This book focussed only on the end of his rule and was an attempt to explain his downfall.
As you read biographies like The Emperor, the question is, which of any of these leadership decisions influenced his reign? Obviously many circumstances drive historical events that little or nothing to do with leadership. However, biographies are opportunities to learn both from what leaders did and did not do, and what you as leader should and should not do. The Emperor is one of those books.
What I took from this book is that leaders should be clear on what they intend. Leaders need to provide clear instruction. Perhaps even more importantly, leaders need to be clear in what they stand for (see my post on Leadership Style). Clear articulation of principles help staff understand why and how decisions are made. Decisions and plans should be written such as mandates, job descriptions, and minutes from meetings. Clear and written decisions with statement of work holds everyone accountable(see my post on Organizational Structure and Committees). Lack of clear instructions, lack of clear processes and lack of accountability runs the risks of confusion and misdirection. Important decisions must ultimately reside with the leader but almost always should be achieved in meetings of key individuals. Such meetings provides the opportunity for respectful and collegial discussion that can only improve decisions. It provides opportunity for working together on important tasks as a team. Finally, group input into decisions paves the way for successful implementation. Leadership roles should be based on skill and experience not on favour (se my post on Recruiting New Leaders). Access to resources should be based on what’s good for in this case the country, not on personal favour with the leader. Gossip is somewhat inevitable in organizations but cannot be the route to influence or a leadership role. Finally, leaders should do what they say they will do. Leaders need to be accountable for their actions. Occasional failure is inevitable. Leaders need to confront those situations but with learning and a plan to improve.
In the end, Emperor Selassie failed. Whether this can be attributed to his leadership actions is unknown but I learned several things I shouldn’t do.