People are often told to "be a leader," but what does that mean? How do people know how to act as a leader when no one defines it for them? There is a simple mantra that defines leadership.

The other day my nine-year old daughter and two sons (seven and five years old respectively) were playing with neighborhood friends. Out of the blue, my two sons came running home upset because the girls in the group told them they didn't want to play with them. I was puzzled. Wasn't my daughter also in the group? How could she allow these girls to tell her younger brothers that they couldn't also play in the group? Why didn't she defend her brothers?

I sat down with my daughter and asked her about what had occurred. The bottom-line was that the popular opinion of the group was that the boys should not play with the girls. However, my daughter acknowledged that she did not agree with the group's opinion. She thought it was wrong, but she did not say anything because the popular feeling was that the boys should leave. At times, my wife and I talk with our children about being a leader instead of a follower. Great advice, but if you don't know what leadership is all about, how can you put it in play? What is leadership?

I've read many books, articles, and journals on the subject of leadership and they offer wonderful ideas about being an effective leader. However, I have not found any that made the following statement. "Leadership is about having the self-confidence to do what is right even when it is not popular."

The scenario that I saw play out with my daughter reminded me of a commonplace business occurrence. How often are business people told to show leadership skills, but not taught what that means? You can yell to people from the highest mountaintop to be leaders, but if you don't help them to understand what leadership means, what ability do they have to change their behavior? How do you help people to feel confident doing what is right when it is not necessarily the popular thing to do?

Not long ago, Bud Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, was faced with declining game attendance. As Commissioner, he was tasked with reversing the attendance trend. One idea he had was to enact interleague play where National League and American League teams play against each other during the season. Historically, the two leagues only played one another in the World Series. Most baseball fans were appalled. They considered this move to be blasphemous. Yet, Bud Selig was un-phased and put the program in place. Today, baseball attendance is booming and interleague play is a hit. Where would baseball be today if Bud Selig let the popular perspective change his decision?

This leadership mantra is not just for managers. It is for everyone. I worked in workplace drug testing for a number of years. Amazingly, five of every one hundred people who take a drug test, fail it. Do the math. That's a lot of people. Are these bad people? Or, at some point in their life, were these people faced with right versus popular and chose the wrong one? "Come on, we're all doing it. Be one of us. Join the crowd." Many of these people knew that drugs were wrong, but elected the easy route of following the popular opinion. At the moment, popular was made to feel right, but only for the moment.

Truth be told, I've made this mistake myself. Years ago, when I ran sales for a mid-sized company, my manager had me terminate the employment of a sales person (for performance) prematurely. This employee had not gone through traditional progressive discipline procedures. However, the COO of the company had decided that this sales person was not going to be successful in the company and should be let go immediately. While I agreed that the sales person was not going to be successful, I disagreed with the timing and the methodology. I pushed back a little, but not hard enough. I should not have let popular win over right.

Sales people allow popular to win versus right, too. Imagine a sales person has been working with a client for three years. He has gotten to know the people in the account. He knows them personally. Now it is time for an account review, a periodic meeting on the performance of the relationship. A manager inserts himself into the process and informs the sales person of what is going to be done in that meeting. The sales person listens to the strategy and knows that it is not right for the account. If anything, it will jeopardize the relationship and cause the decision-maker to look foolish. However, the sales person says nothing to the manager because, after all, he is the boss.

The mantra is not about arrogance. It does not operate under the auspice that you know everything, and thus, your decision is always the right one. Those of you who are Greek mythology fans would call this hubris. No one knows everything. However, it is always easiest to follow the popular direction and not research to form your own opinion of what is right. In today's information world, there is no excuse for not taking a few minutes to research meaningful decisions before making them.

The mantra is not an advocation for insubordination. Yes, that sales person was correct. His manager is the boss. However, managers don't always have all of the necessary information to make an informed, educated decision. Managers count on their employees to share with them, in a diplomatic manner, information that will help them make the right decision. Few managers try to make decisions without the counsel of others. However, not enough employees step up and raise their concerns early in the process. They are masters of water-cooler speaker. "That will never work. They don't know about this factor that will cause the project to fail."

Executives have some responsibility for this issue. Employees are often fearful of repercussion when sharing their thoughts, particularly when they are not consistent with the mainstream feeling (a.k.a. not the popular opinion). "Rather than get rebuked, I'll keep my mouth shut."

Companies need to create a culture where it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, for employees to raise their hand before the ship hits the iceberg. Growth comes from people challenging the status quo and feeling confident that they can present ideas, in contradiction to the popular, without retribution. At the same time, companies should show intolerance for those who fail to raise their hand, but say, "Yup, I knew we would sink when we hit the iceberg. I knew it all along."

The "ivory-tower" is famous, or is it infamous, for making decisions without having all of the most relevant information to do so prudently. The "ivory tower" is called a tower because of the gap between executives and employees. That gap might as well be an ocean if employees are not empowered to share what they feel is right when it is not popular. If it is culturally encouraged for employees to participate in decision-making, data gathering, the company is better positioned to be successful. Oftentimes, the best ideas are found by talking with those who do the work every day. People need to feel empowered to share what they feel is right. Some refer to this as "no sacred cows."

I recently started a new company and I've had so many people tell me what a great job I'm doing. "This idea is brilliant!" However, I'm not looking for a pat on the back, but rather a kick in the pants. The easy thing to do is to tell me that my idea is great. However, I'd much prefer those who tell me what can be better. Tell me you see an iceberg before I hit it.

Author's Bio: 

Lee B. Salz is the CEO of Business Expert Webinars, President of Sales Dodo, and author of “Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager.” Known as “The Sales Dodo,” Lee specializes in helping companies and their sales organizations adapt and thrive in the ever-changing world of business. He is an online columnist for Sales and Marketing Management Magazine and the host of the Internet radio show, “Secrets of Business Gurus.” Look for Lee's new book in 2009 titled, "The Sales Marriage… How to Hire the Right Sales People." He is a passionate, dynamic speaker and a business consultant. Lee can be reached via email at, or by phone at 763.416.4321.