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updated: 7/7/2013 6:51 AM

Career Coach: Leaders can't be afraid to stand up

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By Joyce E.A. Russell

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, and then stand firm. -- Abraham Lincoln

How often do you witness a leader taking a stand on an issue or for a cause? For many, it doesn't seem to be nearly enough. Most people say that they can't get a decisive judgment from their leaders. Instead, their bosses try to please everyone by waffling on issues or saying one thing to one person and something different to someone else. And, in the process, they appear indecisive, thereby not pleasing anyone.

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In their book, "The Truth about Leadership," James Kouzes and Barry Posner describe Truth No. 8 as "You either lead by example or you don't lead at all."

They write, "leadership is waiting for you every day to take action. It's waiting for you to show others that you mean what you say. As a leader you are responsible for modeling behavior based on your values -- in plain view of those you expect to follow those values."

If you continually change your actions on an issue, people are confused about what you stand for. You have to find your spine. If you do nothing about an issue, people see that and form opinions about how you feel about the issue. Take something like discrimination. Suppose you realize that some of your managers are treating people differentially -- based on rank or gender or race, etc. And you do nothing about it. What happens? They believe you either don't care about the issue or that you condone the discriminatory behavior. Is this the message you want them to believe about you or not?

So why do leaders have so much trouble taking a stand? Like anyone, they are fearful of having some people dislike them or voice contrary views. Or, they may have difficulties dealing with conflict. And like any of us, they can be swayed by the squeaky wheels -- those people who argue the most forcefully.

For example, suppose you really don't believe in discrimination and yet your most vocal employees express their views that "it's not a big deal," while those being treated poorly do not speak up as forcefully. Who are you more inclined to listen to? Some leaders are afraid to go up against those who are vocal, especially if there is a group of them. A confident and strong leader will, however, stand up for his or her beliefs and what is right, and not be easily swayed by the squeaky wheels or the vocal group. They will reveal clearly what they will or will not do.

It's not easy to take a stand and go up against vocal opponents. It takes courage. As author Marcus Buckingham says, "Excellent leaders don't just buy into what everybody else is saying, and they don't follow the beaten path. They are constantly blazing new trails."

It helps to have a support group or some advisers who can be encouraging or provide mentoring. If a leader is able to confidently take a stand in these cases, and is consistent in his or her behaviors, at some point, people see this and have a tendency to respect it. They may still fight against it, and they may still be vocal. But, hopefully, the quieter members will also finally speak up in support of the leader's stand.

It is true that taking a stand can end up with negative results. Your views could be seen by some as unpopular. There are risks to giving an opinion. Yet, there are also risks if you don't take a stand for what's right and important -- the loss of talented employees, the respect of those you admire, your own loss of identity and what you value. And it seems that these risks may be greater over the long term.

Today, people are starved for leaders who will take a stand for what they believe in and what they see as right. We should all start now to become those leaders.

Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything. -- Alexander Hamilton

• Joyce E.A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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