Leaders do many things others couldn't get away with and cannot understand. And each time a leader "gets away" with something, there's an erosion of credibility. In The Taboos of Leadership, Anthony D. Smith argues we need to examine leadership with a process-oriented approach. We need to talk about leadership taboos objectively—not as hot buttons to be avoided.
Leaders are charged with getting things
done through others, so we allow them great leeway. We expect
our leaders to exert power, manipulate people and engage in
political gamesmanship. We acknowledge their luxury perks
and generous benefits. After all, most work extremely long
hours. When they tout the merits of equality, collaboration
and work-life balance, it's often a case of "do as I say,
not as I do."
So, which leadership style is right for a given situation?
A caring boss may be effective, but a forceful, demanding
one sometimes gets the job done more expeditiously. An effective
coach will help leaders focus on what they need to do to advance
their agendas and help others realize their potential. But
competing priorities often surface, forcing executive decisions
that may be incongruent with traditionally held leadership
Three Arenas of Leadership
We can view the leadership process from three critical vantage
points: the arenas in which the leader intersects with followers,
the organization and himself / herself.
Each arena is replete with taboos — the paradoxical ideological
standards we say we embrace, but on which we sometimes don't
follow through. Whenever there's a discrepancy between theory
and practice, there are taboos that aren't openly discussed.
Let's look at three leadership taboos found in these arenas:
persuasion, position and the person.
Taboos of Persuasion
Reaching one's intended goal requires influence and persuasion
skills. Years ago, influence was largely a function of position.
Today, we understand the process of leadership has veered
away from strategies like positional power, authority, manipulation
Influence happens when leaders use their credibility to make
an impact on people. Credibility is achieved through:
Conviction: The commitment leaders demonstrate
toward their vision
The taboos of persuasion reveal the gap between theory and
practice. First, we're taught charisma shouldn't matter, but
highly effective leaders have great magnetism. We don't like
to admit we're drawn to those who have charisma (but we are),
and leaders don't want to confess to cultivating it (but they
Character: Consistent demonstration of integrity, honesty,
respect and trust
Care: Concern for others' personal and professional well-being
Courage: Willingness to stand up for one's beliefs, challenge
others, admit mistakes and change one's own behavior when
Composure: Consistent display of appropriate emotional reactions,
particularly in tough situations
Competence: Proficiency in hard (technical, functional,
content expertise) and soft skills (interpersonal relationships,
communication, teamwork, organizational skills)
Second, some experts claim leaders should be open books, completely
accessible and honest about their vulnerabilities. In reality,
power, manipulation and political gamesmanship are critical
to effective leadership.
Taboos of Position
In the knowledge economy, we theorize about dissolving
the barriers among organizational levels. We ask our leaders
to be more humble, collaborative and communicative than the
traditional figurehead in the top office. And yet, we adorn
our leaders with the status and trappings of power and position.
There's a fundamental dichotomy at work here. Leaders need
to reduce their followers' degree of doubt. In a way, the
intimidating trappings of position work to inspire awe and
And while we assert that leaders should be more collaborative
and collegial, employees continue to send a different message:
They want more direction, guidance and influence—not less.
We may say leaders aren't supposed to have all the answers,
but we expect them to act as though they know exactly where
the organization should be going. .
The Taboos of the Person
When facing the work-life balance conundrum, leaders are the
least capable of finding the right balance. Nonetheless, we
expect them to be role models. Unfortunately, most leaders
know no boundaries when it comes to the line between work
We also believe leaders should be servants of the organization,
putting aside their own needs for the greater good. Too often,
however, leaders demonstrate behavior that's narcissistic,
ego-driven or selfishly motivated.
The Credible Leader
Each time there's a gap between what a leader says and does,
credibility is undermined. Over time, it erodes followers'
desire to be influenced.
Leaders are told they needn't have all the answers and should
feel comfortable surrounding themselves with highly talented
people. Leadership gurus tell us it's not important to be
the smartest, most capable person in the room; rather, it's
better to have the smartest, most capable team. But leaders
are rarely so self-confident that they'll allow others to
see them as vulnerable or less capable.
Leadership is a process through which those at the top get
the most out of people for a sustained period, no matter what
it takes. A leader must take a stand on difficult topics and
walk the talk.
As in all aspects of leadership, and even with the taboos
we've discussed here, there's little room for gaps between
what leaders need and how they go about obtaining it.
Acknowledging taboos is great,
but it doesn't solve the problems. We fail to confront reality
because we want to avoid the painful social anxiety we feel
when breaking a taboo.
Executive coaching provides a
good first step in addressing these taboos. An effective
coach can help you determine the source of the problem:
Is it you? Is it your leader? Is it the organizational culture?
With a coach, you can talk about
the taboos that are holding you up, whether it turns out
to be persuasion, position or person.
Spend some time this month exploring
leadership with your coach. Here are some questions to ponder
What kind of a leader am I?
How do I express my leadership?
How can I be a better leader?
Who am I leader for?
If I can help you find answers
to these questions please drop me a line or give me a call.
The highest compliment you can give us is to refer your
family and friends.
For the last twenty
years Jerry has been president of his own firm. He has spent his
career helping small business organizations grow and succeed. He
has a passion for success that he shares with his clients. His current
focus is providing executive and personal coaching to persons who
are interested in improving their effectiveness and their ability
to be successful. He is a facilitator for peer advisory groups with
The Alternative Board and is a Certified One Page Plan Consultant.
Jerry has facilitated planning retreats and planning sessions for
Jerry’s experience includes serving as Vice-president of Marketing
for IGA staff office, Vice-president of membership for the National
Grocers Association, Sr. Vice-president of procurement for Shurfine
International and the Managing Director of The Zenon Hansen Foundation.
Jerry is an Eagle Scout. He lives in Chicago with his wife Terri.
Jerry spends his volunteer time as a coach and consultant for The
Executive Service Corps of Chicago, an organization committed to
help the non-profits in the community improve.
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