Pseudo-Leadership

This video of a tense moment of border patrol agents meeting with their commander has been making the rounds lately. I share it both because it’s yet-another encouraging sign that the stranglehold is unravelling and because it’s an example of something that I’ve been noticing lately.

The commander’s attitude is what I would call ‘pseudo-leadership’. You see it all the time in corporations, politics, the Church, probably the military, pretty much everywhere these days.

This guy’s speech shows most of the hallmarks:

-There’s a personal story to make a ‘connection’ and make your people feel like you’re one of them.

-There are a lot of buzzwords and slogans: “We gotta start taking care of each other,” “We tear each other down instead of building each other up.”

-Talk of ‘programs and initiatives’, systemizing solutions, something highly visible to make it seem like you’re doing something.

-Verbal claim of responsibility without backing it up: “I need to do better.”

-At the same time, gently shifting responsibility onto the men for “being caught up in semantics” and worrying about politics

-Very non-specific, sticking with broad, big-picture topics and refusing to acknowledge or address blunt facts

-Effort at motivational speech

-Getting upset and blustering when challenged, emphasizing how much he, personally, is invested.

Now, it shows how bad things are that the agents actually push back and try to force him into an actual conversation, cutting through the nonsense and pointing out reality: “You say that, but then you keep releasing criminals into the country.” From what I’ve seen, it’s very rare for people to push back against this kind of thing because they don’t want to lose their jobs or be branded as problem employees.

That’s kind of the point, I think. It’s meant to soothe people by putting up a superficial show of leadership and responsibility, so that if the employees start to push back the manager can stand on his dignity and accuse them of being the problem on account of their ‘negativity’ or ‘not having solutions’ or not being committed enough (you can see him doing this in the video: “It’s not hard for me to say that!”).

It isn’t meant to address the concerns of the men, it’s meant to make them accept company policies.

But I think most people see through this. Leadership really isn’t the kind of thing you can successfully fake or learn out of a book. Real leadership is about taking care of the mission entrusted to you and the people under your care. Getting the job done and getting everyone home. You have to be genuinely committed to the job and genuinely committed to the well-being of the people under you.

In other words, it’s just responsibility: willing the good of what is entrusted to you.

Now, I don’t want to judge this guy, since I don’t know his situation and my knowledge of the border patrol doesn’t amount to much.

But from where I’m sitting, if he were a real leader in this same situation, he wouldn’t be spouting silly buzzwords or ‘inspirational’ speeches. He would be listening to what his men tell him, not arguing with them or dismissing them. He’d be asking questions that showed he was actually paying attention: “Remind everyone when this happened.” “Who did this happen to?” “What else happened?”

Again, every leader needs to ingrain Norman and Saxon into his mind:

“Let them know that you know what they’re saying,
Let them feel that you know what to say.”

Afterwards he might say something like, “You’re right, we can’t do our job if we follow these policies. So focus on doing your job and I’ll take the heat if you get in trouble for it.” That might not be practical, but in any case he would let them know that he is on their side, not the administration’s.Because that’s the leader’s job: to take care of his men and ensure that they can carry out their mission. It’s his responsibility to ensure that they have what they need to do that and to listen to them when they say they don’t.

Of course, the problem is that, if he were a real leader, he probably wouldn’t still have a job. He’d have been replaced by…well, someone like this. Because most organizations these days don’t want leaders, they want pseudo-leaders. They don’t want someone to get the job done within his particular sphere, but someone to apply the necessary grease their productivity units so that company policy will be followed without a fuss.

Trouble is that sooner or later, the people who care about the mission are going to lose their patience.

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