You Can't Lead from the Middle of the Pack

I have always joked that I was raised by clichê. My dad was notorious for having a quippy little one liner for just about any situation. Things like: "Quitters never win and winners never quit," "when the going gets tough the tough get going," "never cut a dog’s tail off an inch at a time," "variety is the spice of life, but monotony puts bread and butter on the table" and on and on. He still comes up with different ones every once in a while.

Clichês are clichês for the most part because they are true and thus well-worn through usage. These old folk sayings tend to be founded in some rather solid, albeit home-spun, experiences. As I watched the recent turmoil in the capital markets and the residual impact on businesses and individuals, I was reminded of another clichê I heard growing up that seems apropos: "You can’t lead from the middle of the pack."

In times like these where emotions are running high and manifesting themselves as fear, despair, a sense of defeat and general paralysis, companies and departments within companies need real leadership. People are desperately looking for someone to step forward and help them understand what is going on, why it is happening, how it will affect them and how to cope with the inherent uncertainty of the situation. When nothing around us seems believable, all of us seek something—or someone—to believe in.

My column is focused on providing guidance to aspiring C-level executives on how to reach that level in their careers. While vision for the future, strategic discipline, technical competence, demonstrated success and business acumen are all necessary, the single most differentiating factor is leadership skill. Leadership is perhaps the most over-discussed and least understood topic and/or characteristic I am aware of in business and society. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define leadership but I know it when I see it.

What I have learned, and what most people to whom I attribute the vaunted title of leader share with me, is that in order to lead you cannot be of the team as a member on equal footing. You have to separate yourself from the group in order to remain objective and be seen as uncompromised and unbiased. This separation gives you the credibility and perspective in these times to help people understand what is going on and to see what course they need to follow.

This is not by any stretch to imply leadership equates to being aloof, unapproachable, distant or disengaged. Actually quite the opposite is true. Great leaders are engaged, authentic, approachable and present. But they also manage to communicate their difference. Those around them know that they are operating at a different level of consciousness and awareness relative to the needs and direction of the team.

Leaders are prepared. They are thoughtful. They are pragmatic. They are balanced. And, most of all, leaders provide us a sense of control and hope. People follow people they trust who have consistently demonstrated a genuine concern for their followers, a grasp of the current situation and what to do about it.

If you aspire to reach a C-level position, now is the opportune time to demonstrate that you are the leader the team is looking for. Stand not in the pack, bemoaning the travails of the uncertain marketplace. Stand in the front of the pack as its lead and help those around you find a direction to success and the strength and courage to pursue it.