When you think of leaders you know, do you think of their power and motivation underlying what they do? How leaders execute power differs, and how they are motivated differs. There are those who are motivated to exert power for power’s sake. Those individuals are likely toxic leaders. However, individuals who use their power for good, are motivated to follow their values, and who strive to uniquely brand and positively impact their organizations are considered authentic leaders. And then there are others who are motivated to lead mainly because duty calls; when individuals seek to primarily serve and empower others, they are regarded as servant leaders. You are probably familiar with current and past leaders who typify these three leadership styles.
Let’s begin with toxic leadership. Some leaders are notorious for behaving badly. They are characterized as egocentric, aggressive, uncaring, and focused exclusively on their self-interest. These types of “in-your-face” leaders exercise power in destructive ways. There is Leona Helmsley, known as the “Queen of Mean” for terrorizing her staff. She ran the Helmsley hotel and real estate empire in New York during the late 1980s. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap had the infamous distinction of being rated as one of the top 10 worst bosses. He was a turnaround executive in the 1990s who sacrificed his company’s workers for the bottom line, firing at times 35% of the workforce. Another example is “The Butcher of Uganda,” President Idi Amin, who was largely renounced for perpetrating atrocities on his people during his eight-year reign of terror in the 1970s. Helmsley, Dunlap, and Amin are toxic leaders because their actions are self-focused and harmful to others.
Leaders who exert power positively make a favorable impact, exude strength, use their networks to influence others, and achieve collective goals. Oprah Winfrey, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandburg, and Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, have an ethical power orientation and are likely authentic leaders because they know who they are, they actively manage their behavior, and they seek to develop their followers. Authentic leaders aim to do the right thing for their organizations and society.
Then there are those who lead quietly at times from the front, but are often more comfortable leading from the side. These leaders seek to use their power to serve others. They are humble, altruistic, and caring. They want to do the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons. When a leader has a strong service orientation, they are regarded as servant leaders. Shirley Chisolm is a memorable servant leader as a civil rights and women’s rights crusader. Chisolm, an African-American Congresswoman, was elected in New York in 1968. She said, “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.” Chisolm was a preschool teacher who helped fundraise for the Democratic Party. She realized that women were the majority of voters in her district, so she employed a campaign where she knocked on doors and talked over kitchen tables to win her seat. She strove to mobilize others because she was convinced that ordinary people could make a difference. Chisolm was considered ambitious, but she was ambitious so she could “be a voice for those issues” she felt were critically important. She embraced and enjoyed her position of power to achieve good for others. Contemporary examples of other duty-bound servant leaders with impactful leadership roles include Caesar Chavez and Mother Teresa.
So what is your power orientation, and how are you motivated when you lead? When others tell your story, will they describe you as a leader who wanted to serve yourself, your company, or others? Will you be a toxic leader, an authentic leader, or a servant leader?
Today more than ever, we need ethical and authentic leaders in our families, schools, businesses, and governments. You need to be prepared to lead because it’s not a question of if you will lead someday, but when. Think about what you want your legacy to be. Will you lead by actively embracing your inner purpose like Congresswoman Chisholm? Ultimately, you will be the author of your own leadership chronicle. Be sure it tells the story you want told.
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