Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goals of the Leader vs. the Group

In an ideal world, the goals of a leader line up perfectly with the goals of the group he is leading. The leader and those who follow him would be in sync as they move toward the completion of these goals. But in reality this may not always be the case. For a variety of different reasons, the leader may be motivated to achieve different ends than his followers. In some instances the leader may be right and in others the group may be right. For example, the aims of an elementary school teacher are usually going to be different from the aims of a student. The teacher wants the class to follow the lesson plan attentively and learn, while the students may be more interested in goofing around. In this case we would say that the leader is right and the students need to obey.

But what about a case where right and wrong is not so clear cut? Say a wealthy CEO is feeling the pressure from his board of directors to raise the company's stock price. Although the employees may be interested in working diligently to maintain the long term health of the company, the CEO might start firing people and implementing strategies that are solely focused on the short term in order to save his job. The misalignment of goals between the two groups would surely create tension. How do those being led go about addressing this tension? And how much latitude is the leader given because of his position.

In the 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted an eye-opening study on our sheep-like tendency to obey those in perceived positions of authority. Test subjects continued to administer harmful electric shocks to what they thought were fellow participants just because some men in lab coats told them to do so. The point is that leaders can be wrong sometimes. Just because a person is a leader doesn't mean that he is always right. Those in non-leadership positions must be ready to step up and be heard when leaders start to do things like we saw in Germany in the 1930s that led up to the horrors of the Holocaust. When the goals of the leaders and the led are not in line, the followers must sometimes be ready to come forward and act.

1 comment:

  1. Your mention of Milgram and of Germany in the 1930s here gets to the root of the problem. Obedience to authority almost always leads to disaster. This is why organizations, especially large ones, should have some aspects of them that are democratic – or at least collaborative. The best leader (in this special context of understand organizations) is one who leads by enabling others to help formulate the group’s goals. So vision is one thing and direction is another. Vision is typically personal and a great leader lends vision but is not necessarily the one to direct or enact. Your experience with the figure of the team coach is anomalous here and perhaps not the best model. Coaches have or don’t have vision but they almost always direct, but by definition can’t enact. This produces victories (result of teamwork, at best) but also can lead to Milgram-like and 1930s-like authority and all the problems attending that. The “lining up perfectly” you rightly say is ideal is really rare. In almost all cases, the balance I describe is necessary. All this is not as obvious as it seems.