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How to not be a leader

May 22, 2020

Does the world really need another book or webinar about ‘how to be a great

leader’? As businesses cast their eyes towards the challenging post-COVID-19

landscape, Fraser Allen suggests that ‘great supporters’ are the under-rated

stars of successful organisations.

Do you regularly get spammed by people you’ve never heard of offering courses and

webinars on ‘how to be a better leader’, ‘how to be a great leader’ or ‘how to be the

leader you never thought you could be’?

Anyone would think there weren’t already thousands of ‘leadership’ books out there.

And while most of those are written by white, middle-aged men revealing ‘the

secrets of their success’ there are oodles of other guides created by all kinds of

people for every imaginable niche where someone needs to ‘discover the true leader

within themselves’. Some of them, of course, are very good. Others, less so.

It makes me wonder if this emphasis on leadership creates as many problems as it

solves. Obviously, we need great leaders (possibly, now more than ever) and I’ve

met many inspirational ones through my Scottish Business Network podcast series.

But there’s a danger that this obsession also encourages some people to push

themselves forward as a leader, when they’d be much more use as a ‘supporter’.

The reason I get targeted with these emails is that I owned a marketing agency for

18 years.  However, as I got to know myself better over the course of that time, it

became clear to me that I wasn’t a natural leader at all – and more importantly, I

didn’t really want to be. I’m not a follower either. My default position is sitting from the

sidelines, watching what’s going on – a typical journalist.

That didn’t stop me from running a successful business, but could it have been even

more successful if I’d been a proper, rabble-rousing leader? Very probably – but I

liked doing it my own way. And the more I received invitations to learn how to be a

great leader, the more I yearned for an invitation to learn how not to be a leader.

The pressure on people to show leadership qualities is everywhere in business now,

and doesn’t just apply to owners, CEOs and senior executives. We're all told that we

need more leaders, that everyone looks up to leaders. And the horror show of

leadership ‘role models’ in the wider world doesn’t help. If aliens arrived on

Planet Earth, what kind of impression would they glean from the 195 national leaders

that represent us?

As a result, many people within organisations feel compelled to try to be a kind of

quasi-leader. But quasi-leaders are really just pundits. One of my clients, Dr Charles

Spinosa of Vision Consulting, wrote a fascinating blog recently called Does Covid-19

Tear The Poetry From Our Souls, in which he explains why punditry is a serious

threat to business life. It's also a threat to civilised public debate – just look at


Healthy, open debate is good within a business but the priority of pundits is not to

support the organisation but to try and show up as a quasi-leader by suggesting they

know best. If you have too many pundits in your business, people will struggle to

work together effectively, and true leaders will be undermined.

That’s why we need to treasure those true leaders, and help those who find

themselves expected to lead, without encouraging everyone to grab the reins. And

we need a lot more inspirational talk about ‘how to be a great supporter’. Great

supporters are the unsung stars of an organisation. They don’t follow blindly –

they speak up strongly if they feel something is wrong or misguided. And they don’t

do that in an attempt to show that they could be a better leader. Being a great

supporter is about fulfilling your role to push to a business forward and get the best

out of your colleagues, whatever their position in the hierarchy.

The COVID-19 crisis will no doubt provoke a further torrent of online blogs about

‘how to lead business back to growth’. However, as many organisations cast their

eyes across an extraordinary new landscape of threats and opportunities, many

would do well to encourage and promote the role of their great supporters too.

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