Being a Leader Doesn’t Make You One

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

“His relentless drive and determination, great strengths in an editor, also alienated wide swaths of the NY Times newsroom, as people felt excluded and in many cases shoved aside by his autocratic rule…”
Washington Post, June 5, 2003

“Staffers complain of coming out of meetings with Raines feeling beaten and depressed rather than energized. His rah-rah memos to the staff exhorting them to higher greatness fell flat. He kept to himself and to the power troika he formed…”
Slate, June 6, 2003

“At the Times, most people didn’t feel part of Raines’ team and were more than willing to turn on him…”
Washington Post June 9, 2003

If you follow the news at all, you may recognize these statements, which refer to Howell Raines, the New York Times Executive Editor who recently resigned under pressure (in spite of the fact that he led his paper to six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of 9/11).

Clearly, Mr. Raines had the technical expertise to do a stellar job. What he reputedly lacked, however, were people skills. When the chips were down and he desperately needed the support of his staff in order to keep his job, they seemed by all reports to almost gleefully let him twist in the wind.

The Importance of People Skills

Like Mr. Raines, most leaders have the technical expertise to do their jobs effectively. In fact, that’s usually the reason they were promoted to a leadership position in the first place.

But technical know-how is only part of what it takes to be an effective leader. Many managers and executives may be surprised to learn that it’s not even the most important part. Technical expertise and knowledge are prerequisites to good leadership; they’re necessary, but not sufficient. A leader’s ability to relate with and motivate the people who report to them is far more important. Much research shows that when people can work in a climate of respect, caring, honesty, collaboration, cooperation and trust, they maximize their contributions to the organization.

In other words, leaders simply do not succeed without people skills–yes, that “touchy-feely stuff.”

Most leaders aren’t born with the relationship skills they need. When it comes to dealing with people problems, newly promoted leaders too often feel like they’re winging it. And when inevitable problems and conflicts arise, they feel frustrated, even helpless.

Underlying these people skills is a very different leadership philosophy than the command-and-control, top-down, hierarchical philosophy which eventually brought Raines down–and which is still far too prevalent in our culture.

Characteristics of the Most Effective Leaders

  • They decrease the power differential between self and team members
  • They create conditions for distributing the leadership function throughout the group
  • They show respect for intrinsic worth of team members
  • They show respect for team members as individuals who are different from the leader
  • They understand that people aren’t there to be used, directed, or influenced to accomplish only the leader’s aims
  • They listen with empathy
  • They demonstrate acceptance
  • They express his or her own beliefs, needs and ideas honestly, clearly, and without blame
  • They work to resolve conflicts in a way that creates mutual need satisfaction

Do a Quick Self-Check

If you lead people, you owe it to them (and to yourself) to honestly and frankly assess the current conditions your team members are working under. The following questions, approached with an open mind, can help you to identify opportunities to improve your leadership skills, and to make your team more productive, more satisfied, more loyal to you, and more likely to recognize and remedy team conflicts and people problems before they get out of hand.

  • “Do I really trust the capacity of the team and of the individuals on it to solve the problems facing us? Or do I basically trust only myself?”
  • “Do I create a climate in which my team can have creative discussions by being willing to hear, understand, accept and respect all input? Or do I find myself trying to influence the outcome of discussions?”
  • “Do I honestly express my own beliefs and ideas without trying to control those of others?”
  • “When there are problems and conflicts, do I make it possible for them to be brought out into the open, or do I subtly communicate that they should be kept hidden?”

Embodied in each of these questions is a different, proven, tested people skill. And just as technical expertise is learnable, so too are people skills. It’s an endeavor that takes training and practice, practice, practice, but the payoffs in morale, productivity, and energy are both measurable and immeasurable.