The FLIP Side of Leadership…and the Antidote

For every leadership development seminar I conduct, I ask each participant to gather some objective data on the topic of leadership ahead of time. Specifically, I ask each person to talk with a few of their friends, family, students, coworkers or acquaintances about leadership in the days before the seminar, and find out what they look for in someone whose lead they would willingly follow. The operative word here, I stress to my participants, is “willingly.”[1] Willingly means that we exercise our free will. Willingly means that we are not coerced, cajoled or backed into a corner to have to follow. Instead, we follow by personal choice, without reluctance, because we are favorably disposed to do so.

More often than not, the soon-to-be participants find, to their surprise, that the people they talk to respond by saying that they look for a similar set of qualities in their own leaders. Among the qualities they mention most often, and what the people say those qualities really mean, are the following:

Honestytruthful in both word and deed

Integrity: walks the talk, consistently; role-models behavior; holds himself or herself accountable

Vision: guides, shows the way; communicates objectives and goals

Competence: knows the business

Courage: adheres to his or her convictionsshows strength of character

Inspires: demonstrates personal passion; motivates others

Respects: treats others with fairness; remains open to others’ ideas

Listens: values others’ input and ideas; engages in two-way communication

Commits to helping others succees: strives to know the total person; develops the talent of others

Distributes ownership…and holds others accountable

Recognizes and celebrates others’ accomplishments: expresses gratitude; gives credit where credit is due, publicly

All of these are admirable qualities. All are typical qualities of exemplary leaders, as cited by scores of prominent practitioners, observers, researchers, writers and teachers in the leadership field. I am confident that, among these, you will find qualities that figure prominently in attracting and engaging your own enthusiasm and commitment to willingly follow the lead of someone else.

Unheralded scores of men and women honor the people they lead by regularly holding themselves accountable for behaving and acting in ways that reflect these qualities. To these people, we owe a debt of gratitude for shaping cultures of ethics, civility and service, as well as for creating great places to work and live. 

When my seminar participants ask colleagues about the qualities they value, they seldom report finding too many of these qualities in leaders or in their cultures. Far more often, participants report hearing people complain of a scarcity of these qualities among many who don the robes of leader, but who discredit the role by their actions. From my vantage point as one who often hears from those on the receiving end of leadership, their day to day experience differs radically from the ideals that they honor or hope for — is far removed, in fact, from the qualities that would engage their enthusiasm to willingly follow. In their place, I hear of a bleak set of leadership qualities being practiced by many who call themselves leader, but whose actions prove otherwise. Their actions show them to be but pretenders[2] who harm the people they lead by all too frequently choosing to disregard the qualities their people respect and require. Instead, they perpetrate a set of behaviors I’ve come to call the FLIP side of leadership.

FLIP is an inverted (or, worse, distorted) form of leadership whose adherents find it acceptable to:

F – Fearmonger, Fabricate claims and Falsify the record

L – Limit access to information or Lie about the facts

I –  Insult our intelligence, Impugn the integrity of their detractors, if not Intimidate them

P – Pursue Power, Profit, Prestige, Position, Personal or Professional Gain, Publicity or Pleasure, with callous disregard for principle or the interests of the community and the common good

A casual reading of the news and blogs in this first decade of the 21st century offers myriad stories of women and men in every office of leadership — be it in our business communities, religious communities, school systems, or in our national, state and local governments, or in our not-for-profit organizations — whose actions and behaviors illustrate the FLIP side of leadership. Their motivations have more to do with exerting control than with inspiring us to contribute; more to do with getting compliance than with engaging our desire or our willingness to commit; more to do with serving the immediate interests of a few than with the larger interests of the community they claim to lead. They might wear the label “leader”; they might hold the title “leader”; but they are not leaders. Rather, they are “handlers” posing as leaders. They do little to engage our enthusiasm or inspire us to willingly follow. Instead, they too often manage and manipulate the people under their cloak to follow out of fear, self-interest or self-preservation.

I have written The Citizen Leader partially in response to this practice.

I fundamentally believe that we are all co-creators of the world in which we live and work. Our families, our schools, our places of work, our places of worship, our neighborhoods and towns — all these constitute the communities that make up our world. Through our daily behaviors, words, actions and choices, we contribute to the character of those communities, and shape the world in which we live and work, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our colleagues, for our coworkers and for our fellow citizens.

I fundamentally believe that if we wish to avoid living under the FLIP side of leadership, then we must assume personal responsibility to check it, right it, reverse it. I fundamentally believe that if I myself do little or nothing to arrest this FLIP dynamic, I am condoning both its growth and the culture it produces. I own that while I lack the power to change the world, I do have the power to shape my world. And I own that not to take that seriously, not to act as if I am a co-creator of our collective reality, is an act of surrender and perhaps an abdication of responsibility. And so, I try to be mindful of the culture I want to live in as I age, and I try to match my behaviors and actions to that culture.

It’s up to us. We are the ones we are waiting for. We are the ones who can shape, change and transform our world by behaving and speaking in ways that offer an antidote to the FLIP side of leadership – in ways that will heartily engage the enthusiasm of the people we lead. At the risk of being prescriptive, I offer the following:

Where the handlers would fearmonger, fabricate claims and falsify the record in order to manage and manipulate the people around them, let us forge a shared understanding of what is real and what is not.

Where the handlers would limit access to information and lie about the facts, let us level with one another so that we may all make clear and informed choices.

Where the handlers would insult our intelligence, impugn the integrity of their detractors, or worse, intimidate them, let us inquire into the reasons for disagreement so that we may seek to better understand and better appreciate differing points of view.

Where the handlers would pursue power, profit, prestige or personal gain with callous disregard for the deleterious impact on people, community and culture, let us persevere with adherence to principles that shape a culture of ethics, civility and service.

It’s up to us.


[1] The workshop I refer to here is The Leadership Challenge Workshop, created by leadership researchers and writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. When I ask participants, before the workshop, what they “look for in someone whose lead they would willingly follow,” and when I go on to stress that the operative word is “willingly,” I am conducting an exercise using the “Characteristics of an Admired Leader” questionnaire authored by Kouzes and Posner an instrument they have been using since 1981 to collect data. For more information on the questionnaire and the data collected, see The Leadership Challenge (4th edition), Chapter 2: “Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership.

[2] One who makes a false or hypocritical show.