Friends, Followers, Foes

I watched The King recently. The 2019 movie about King Henry V depicts the struggles of a young king thrust into power by the death of his father and brother. Early in his reign, Sir John Falstaff, his most trusted friend, says, “A king has no friends, only followers and foes.” This may be true of kings, I wouldn’t know, but it’s not true for modern leaders.

Among other interesting, and mostly accurate, leadership principles on display during the movie was this: “Promise can never be an end in itself. Promise must be fulfilled. You wish to be a king for the people, now, we must ensure to that end, however, you do not remain oblivious to the mood of the people. This mood is a fantasy, but that does not mean it is not felt true.”

As my friend and spiritual advisor often tells me, “There is perception, and there is reality, and they are not always the same.” Frankly, that kind of sucks, given the vast range of experiences, thought processes, and resulting perceptions. It is not only likely, but guaranteed, that your communications and actions will be misperceived by some number of the people you serve.

Vision creates an inspiring promise of a future. However, that promise will create expectations based as much on perception as on reality. While these can be similar, there will always be differences that can lead to misunderstanding and resentment. Moreover, clarity adds complexity, so the more specific you are about the ends you envision, the more potential there is for deviation between your ideal strategy and other people’s.

It is in these moments that the difference between mission, vision, and strategy become critical. For high level leaders, the ongoing actualization of the mission and progress toward a future state defined in a vision must be the fundamental products of their effort. Once the majority of individuals in the community are aligned with the mission and the vision, the variations on strategy, while at times distracting, will, for the most part, be capable of achieving the desired ends.

James F. Lincoln, the leader behind the Lincoln Electric Co., said it this way: “There is no limit to the production capacity of a human being. The worker who is assured the fruits of his labor will find a thousand and one ways to increase production.” In context, Lincoln was talking about the intrinsic motivation that is present when the effort to improve results is met with increased reward. That’s a great principle and one that leaders should adhere to.

However, this principle also works in a much broader sense. When people want something, they are willing to give their best effort, their best self, to the gaining of that thing. If, and only if, they believe they can get it. If you offer to bonus people for increased production, but the targets are unattainable, you will get no results. Likewise, if you promise a certain result if people align with your mission and vision and then fail to deliver or withhold that result, you will be faced with unmet expectation and resentment being the only reality people can see.

So, are the people we lead limited to being followers and foes, or can we be friends?

Hopefully, the people we serve in our communities are not foes, but it is likely a few will be. If they are circumspect about it and don’t actively resist the team’s efforts, we may never even know. If they are actively antagonistic, it will have to be addressed. One of the themes in “The King” was the way Henry V’s father had made people into enemies that did not have to be. Leaders should be self-aware and avoid offense that leads to unnecessary foes.

Having followers sounds great on the surface but significantly limits growth. Followers may do whatever they are asked (out of blind faith or fear), but they are rarely engaged in creating new paths to reach the destination. The result of the influence of military leadership theory being used in modern organizations is a tendency toward authoritarian, “top down” leadership. This works great on a battlefield but does more harm than good in most organizations.

Preferably, we should be “friends,” people who know each other and have a bond of mutual affection. If we have a clear, inspiring, and strategically achievable vision. If we believe that we are all equally valuable and worthy of care and respect. If we are committed to everyone having the opportunity to live their best life. Then we create a bond of mutual affection and an atmosphere where we can know and help each other. Then, instead of being leaders “of” the people, we can be leaders “for” the people, and we can lead The Kimray Way.