The Magical Relationship between Leaders and the Led

August 5, 2008

Discussions on leadership have a tendency to be one-directional with the focus largely on the leader rather than the led. The leader is the magician, the headline act if you will, while the employees are the faceless, doe-eyed audience passively waiting to be enchanted. Scanning the local crowd, the leader pulls out of his sleeves the tricks of his trade; power, authority, charisma and legitimacy. It is the magician alone that determines whether he kills or is killed on any given night.

But leadership is inconveniently more than a stage show with top hat, tux and slight of hand tricks. It is a relationship between people, one energized and strained by vision and trust, fear and misalignment of interests. And while leaders may attempt to impose their will on organizations, the will of the led has been known to wage battle with the best laid Machiavellian plans.

Last week the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece on the venerable camera manufacturer Leica. Once an undisputed world leader, the German company is now a minor, albeit high quality niche player in a market dominated by the likes of Canon, Sony and Kodak. In an attempt to stem the bleeding and move the firm into the digital era, in 2006 an American veteran of IBM and Best Buy was hired as CEO. What ensued was a flurry of changes to products, channels and people. What didn’t ensue was an improvement to the company’s fortunes and thus the CEO was recently ‘resigned’.

The WSJ article tries to sort through the bickering, wrongful dismissal lawsuits and conflicting storylines weaving through this ongoing story. The CEO’s camp accuses long-term employees of resisting change and engaging in a smear campaign to discredit the leader. Fearing for their jobs, these ‘underperformers’ used their seats on the supervisory board to undermine every step taken by the CEO. Supporters of the CEO lament that he was, “exactly what the company needed but he was simply not heeded”. Meanwhile, the company’s beleaguered owner stated that at the end of the day, “management’s job is to get the employees behind you”.

Also last week, Circuit City Stores ousted their CEO. Once again, despite a series of changes made to the retailer, the company’s performance failed to improve. Among the ‘blunders’ attributed to the executive was the decision to cut costs by removing high performing, senior employees. But as one individual commented, “If you worked at Circuit City, the only way to interpret it was that if you do well, you will be fired. It led to bad morale and staff disengagement”.

On the surface, underperforming century old companies, major retailers, high growth start-ups, and public sector organizations have little in common organizationally. The exception to this is the power of the led to make or break the leader. Leaders that fail to recognize this simple reality, and adjust their magic acts accordingly will find their shows cancelled in very short order. As evidenced by the daily business obituaries, many magicians simply do not have the awareness of the audience or versatility to make those adjustments.