Like many of us, I have been enjoying HBO’s series Succession, about the dysfunctional dynamics of the uber-rich Roy family trying to hold onto their multi-billion-dollar media empire and navigate the megalomania of patriarch and truly horrible human being, Logan Roy (played brilliantly by Brian Cox). Behind both the drama and the humor of the show there are some interesting insights into the cultural stereotypes that inform both a leader and the act of leading. At root, the show plays off a range of highly clichéd attributes we have traditionally associated with a strong leader, in order to offer a commentary on modern conceptions of wealth, excess, and the role of nepotism, as well as more existential themes of good and evil, morality versus ethics and the relational obligation of parent and child.
The show works, in part, because Logan Roy is the embodiment, perhaps in caricature, of what we traditionally mean by a strong leader. For those of you who don’t know the show, Logan is the aging CEO of a multi-billion-dollar Fortune 50 company he would have us believe he has built single-handedly, through his relentless drive, determination and ruthless ambition. He has, in effect, simply willed himself and his company to success, crushing anyone who would stand in his way. He is a force of nature, as impossible to placate or bargain with and just as obstinate. Friendships and family are simply pawns to be played in the game; and the game has only one purpose: that is to win! As he faces old age, deteriorating health and the reality of his need to plan for his succession (from which the show draws its title), he grows evermore obstinate: who can possible replace him? No one, of course! Not even his own children are capable of assuming the helm and sustaining his legacy—not in the way he would have it sustained.
He is, in effect, not a leader at all, but a glorified individual contributor, incapable of shifting his values, growing and developing in his outlook, and inspiring his people beyond the sentiment of fear—which, like a mob boss, he has confused with leading.
Not the man you would want to work for! But a model that, even unconsciously, continues to inform our definition of a leader: strong, driven, personally charismatic—even if that charisma is fear-based. Someone who doesn’t accept losing—he is a winner at any cost. Not that all of these qualities are inherently bad, but note that they are intrinsically self-referential: it’s all about him. There’s an extraordinary myopia here: for a role that should, by definition, be focused on others—creating clarity for his people around strategy, and their role in the execution of that strategy; that should include in that strategy a development of people so that they can increase their performance and add execution bandwidth for the organization—there is nothing. His performance is solely about leading a function; not about leading people. It’s about his goals, his individual achievement, which he has conflated with the goals of the organization. And this is a problem! By analogy, consider a teacher: if they only cared about their own needs and their own performance, instead of the students, we would label them a failure as a teacher. We should do the same with leaders!
When, as leaders, we focus only on functional aspects of the business, and not on our people, we miss the primary job of the leader’s role. This is an experience I know all too well. I never failed as a leader in my functional focus: I drove sales; I made the rounds to clients; and I contributed to the strategic conversation of the organization. But people were an afterthought. I didn’t lead people. And when you don’t lead people, you lose them. If not physically—having them walk out the door—you lose them mentally: you create disengagement.
Regardless of the survey you care to look at, you’ll see that the number one reason people leave an organization is their leader. People leave bad leaders, like dignity leaving politics. Depending on the survey you’ll see that compensation comes in either number 9 or number 11. Despite our assumptions, compensation is not the reason people leave—it’s us!
The role of the leader is to ensure the success of his or her people; and to assume responsibility for their development. That’s what a leader does. That’s the job of leading. Our individual output is inconsequential in the context of our capacity to drive results through our people. When our people succeed, we succeed—because we have facilitated that success; we have made it our job to see that they succeed!
But for this to be true we have to value the job of leading people and respect the hard work and on-going focus that that job demands. Part of the consequence of seeing leadership only through the lens of individual accomplishment is that we dismiss the importance of our own development as leaders. Coupled to the idea of the individual, strong leader is the notion that leaders are somehow born, not made. This is tacitly expressed in Logan Roy’s character in Succession. In part, no one can replace him because they were not blessed with his strength, drive and ruthless ambition. Personality differences are true—some individuals do in fact have more drive and ambition than others—but individual differences pale in comparison to the development of the right mind set and skills essential to turning individual effort into team successes. And nothing would preclude a driven and ambitious leader from harnessing those attributes to be a more successful leader of others and gaining increased output (and success!) from that effort.
And, as long as we’re dismantling outmoded beliefs, let me quickly address the long-standing belief that leading people is a “soft skill”—whatever that means? Have you tried leading people? Does it feel “soft” to you? If you consider the different sources of frustration, anxiety and complexity in your job, I am willing to bet they disproportionately relate to people! People bring challenges! And when we are unprepared, or unwilling, to address these people challenges through effective development of our ability to lead and support them, we make matters worse. True strength, then, is not about your ability to “kill it” with functional execution, or possessing superior business acumen—although both of these are certainly important—but your ability to create the right results with the people who call you their leader and look to you for support and development.
When the organization, as a whole, embraces this model of leadership, a true leader-led culture is established. This is a culture that reflects a respect for, and commitment to, its employees; and a culture capable of responding to future challenges because the leaders are focused on developing their teams to be able to respond to and address whatever issues arise.
Surveys from the COVID pandemic told a compelling story: organizations where leaders were truly empowered, and where there existed a sustained focus on their employees, fared much better than those that did not share these qualities. It was too late to try to learn to lead and to earn the respect of your team when COVID hit. Leaders who had invested in their employees’ success and development had earned the right to make asks of their employees—had earned trust that they could lead them effectively through tough times. In the absence of that trust, organizations fell apart.
So when you take these points together:
- That leading is first and foremost about creating results through your people, by supporting and developing them
- That ineffective leading—including outdated notions about what a leader is or is not—creates inefficient organizations that risk retention challenges, meeting key business objectives and meaningful succession planning
- That leading is not an inherited trait, but a discipline that needs to be developed
you establish a culture where leaders see their responsibility as developing others and ensuring their success—not simply a compliance exercise, where we check a box to confirm someone has gone through “leadership training”. When the culture has taken on this framework of leading—what it means to be an effective leader, including clarity around the expectations and performance of each leader’s role—then you have a recipe for lasting impact. This is how you create a leadership development program that works; and this is how you create real leaders and not a TV villain, however entertaining that villain may be!