The question is clear – Who should the leader be working for – his men or his boss?

The question can easily be dismissed by saying that it would be presumptive for any leader to think that he alone cares for his men. The boss too does. After all, they are his men too.

However, those who’ve actually led men for some years know that such a situation does arise. The academics may not realize it but ask some leader with experience in the trenches. If you still don’t believe it, treat it as a hypothetical question, but do answer.

I see it answered in many ways.

A leader is appointed by the employer to get some objectives of the organisation achieved. So, he should always strive for that. At times, leaders start relating to their men a bit too much, to the detriment of the stated objectives of the organisation or the immediate mission. One good example is in movie 12 O Clock high. There, the bomber squadron was taking too many hits and the CO got rattled. When he was given a particularly difficult mission, he almost revolted as he felt that the higher command was treating his men too lightly. The movie brings out the delicate balance between between concern for men and that for task extremely well and caps it in favour of the task. The men exist to carry out the task. The task must not be sacrificed for the sake of the men.

In this regard, I directly reproduce Colin Powell’s words – ‘Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions.  Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.  Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.

In corporate world, such dilemmas do not take place very often. However, I’ve seen a different twist of it there.  The HR staff in many organisations takes it upon themselves that their job is the welfare of the personnel. They’d hide their weaknesses and seek special concessions for them. They forget that their loyalty is to the organisation and not to the employees. They are expected to ensure good HR practices so that the efficiency generated by it helps achievement of its objectives. They are not advocates of the employees. That responsibility is that of the unions.

It must be pointed out here that HR people are not leaders in the strict sense. They are, in a way, staff.

Let us now turn to another scenario – one where the leader senses that his boss is no longer serving the interests of the organisation, but is pursuing his own.

Now, here is the real dilemma. Should the leader work for the final objectives of the organisation, or his boss, or the interests of the men under him?

There are too many variables in this situation hence a clear cut answer is not possible. Much depends on the exact degree of command he enjoys over the men and the type of dangers they face. In military situations, the danger to men can be supreme but is not so in most other organisations. So, the answer will never be the same in all situations.

The movie Invictus – story of Nelson Mandela in South Africa – provides some good pegs for our thinking here. When the Blacks in South Africa were offered some concessions in the white dominated nation, they wanted to get even with the whites. Nelson considers it wrong so he decides to oppose his own men. His wife reminds him that it was his job as the leader to facilitate what his men wanted, not oppose it.

Nelson replies, ‘I am their leader. I intend to lead them and not follow them.’

In a way, he decides to look after the interests of the organisation – the newly formed nation in this case – rather than the desires of his men.

So how do I answer my own question – Who should the leader work for – his men, or his boss?

I’d now say – ‘Neither of these two. He should work for the third entity – the organisation.’

What do you say? It’ll be interesting to discuss this.

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