Opinion by Richard Bleil
A friend of mine is going through a tough time. She is facing the same kind of thing that I have, both as director of the forensic lab and as dean, and like me, she has been dismissed from her leadership position. In speaking with her, it has helped to bring a few things into sharper focus for me.
Whether I am speaking of either of the aforementioned examples from my life, or hers, is immaterial. There are so many striking similarities in the stories that they may as well all be the same.
First of all, when you are placed into a leadership position, we must understand that there will be those that are followers. In my positions, I was hired into the leadership position. This is not enough to be an effective leader, and I worked hard to earn the respect that makes a good leader, but I was being continuously undermined as I was in that position. She took on a leadership position voluntarily. Her group lost leaders, and she was the one who volunteered to take the position.
When you are a leader, there are people who cause problems. Some of those you lead will decide they don’t like you. Maybe they wanted the position for themselves, maybe it’s just the title that you carry. But whether they know you or not, they’ve made up their minds. Others think that, regardless of your position, they have the right to make leadership decisions, even if they are contrary to what you are trying to accomplish as the leader, for some reason in their mind that makes them believe that they have more authority than you have. A good leader will listen to these types of people and consider their input (as all input is valuable) but eventually a decision has to be made.
Unfortunately, these kinds of people can cause a lot of problems for the person in the leadership position. You see, everybody reports to somebody, and if people want to make trouble for you, in our society they can simply step around you and report to your supervisor. This is the essence of backstabbing. If somebody truly has something that they dislike and no ill intention, they will go to you and say, “Hey, I don’t like this.” If they’re truly good at constructive criticism, they’ll say “because…” and “…here’s an alternative…” But going to a supervisor is an attempt to tarnish your image.
A superior supervisor will do a few things. First, the supervisor will discern between legitimate concerns and complaints meant to make somebody look bad. Even listening to people, the supervisor still needs to make decisions, and if that decision does not go in the direction the person wants, they’ll lash out if they lack the emotional maturity to deal with it. This gives the supervisor the opportunity to support the leader, saying something like “I support your leader’s decision”, or even “this is something that you need to speak with your leader about.”
The second thing a good supervisor can do is to get the other side of the story for anything that really sounds like a problem. Now, getting the other side of the story is not just asking what that side is, because if the supervisor had already made up their mind, then they’ve already dismissed that side of the story anyway. I sat through one of these meetings, where the provost sat down with me to discuss concerns that had been brought up. The concerns dealt with things that were half-truths (or flat out lies) and things that had already been taken care of, and I explained this. And yet, my supervisor brought it up again in the same conversation as if I hadn’t said a word. Yes, they let me talk, but they weren’t listening. To really make an informed decision, both sides must be heard with equal weight, but that doesn’t always happen.
Finally, if there really is a problem, a good supervisor will talk with the person involved, explain the problem, what they see as the problem and give that leader the chance to change or fix the situation. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, they just start a file, often without telling you, that they can then later use against you.
This is the difference between a leader and a politician. A leader will try to resolve problems, try to treat everybody fairly, and make informed decisions. A politician just plays the self-aggradization game, trying to make others look bad for the sake of their own standing. A leader will restrict their actions to those of the highest ethical and moral standards, often not only avoiding making others look bad, but also taking the blame to protect others when appropriate to do so. Politicians intentionally work to undermine others by making them look bad, not only to those people following the leaders, but also to make them look bad in the leaders’ supervisors.
Our society favors politicians over leaders. Americans love scandal, they love to see people fail, and are far quicker to believe the dirt than they are the truth. If there’s nothing scandalous, then they’re ready to believe the first person because it’s easier than looking for the truth. We are woefully lacking in true leaders, because the leaders are easily torn down by the politicians. It’s a pitiful state of affairs, and one that is hurting our society. it is my humble opinion that we all need to look at our own attitudes and actions, and elevate ourselves to the level of standards of leaders.