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June 2, 1994

The Lion and the Lemming: Leading Others AND Managing Yourself

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Leadership has an inner and an outer dimension. Being a leader means both managing yourself and leading others. In talking about these topics, there are two animals that immediately come to mind—the lion and the lemming.
The lion leads a pride—the group of cats whose welfare he oversees. He makes sure they are fed. He takes the lead and sees that they get rest. He protects them from attack. He mediates the pecking order and keeps everyone in line. When a pride of lions has no leader, it faces an inner battle: Lions fighting each other for control. When there is a healthy leader at the top, the pride is at peace and can function and grow.
Leadership is like that at all levels. People need direction. That direction includes input from below, but it’s established from the top down. It is axiomatic that leaders have to lead. They have to take the initiative. They make it incumbent upon themselves to get the group from Point A to Point B. If the group is dysfunctional, then at some level it is always the leader’s fault. Leaders own the bottom line, no matter how many people are involved with the variables.
Hurricane Katrina provided a classic case study in the breakdown of leadership. The failure to adequately respond to the 2005 disaster wasn’t from the lack of a plan. The multi-million-dollar contingency study of a direct hurricane hit on New Orleans was sitting on the shelf in three-ring binders. It was not from the lack of resources. All the relief supplies were sitting in warehouses around the country. A fleet of buses was sitting in a parking lot in New Orleans. It was simply a problem of people not leading. The mayor of New Orleans did not take the lead in protecting his city with a rigorous evacuation. The director of FEMA did not take the initiative to act decisively once the problem was obvious. It was a comedy of errors caused by inaction. No one acted like a lion and took the lead.
People and organizations need leadership.
There is a second type of animal, however, and this one makes a dangerous leader: The lemming. Few of us have ever seen a live lemming and not many of us could pick one out of a Wild Kingdom photo lineup. You don’t see lemmings in family crests or as the visual icons for movie studios. But these small rodents living in the Arctic Circle are famous in urban legend for following their leader in mass suicidal plunges off cliffs. The lemming leader is highly effective at moving his followers. The problem is that he is leading them to a steep fall onto unforgiving rocks. The lemming has no internal moral compass. He does not lead himself before he leads others. He steps out in a whimsical direction and takes others with him.
Enron was a case of a lemming leadership disaster. Misguided executives took the energy company from blue chip to cow chip by using deceptive accounting practices throughout the 1990s to inflate the company’s value. And Arthur Andersen, at the time one of the world’s top five accounting firms, was dissolved as a result of its involvement in the scandal. Thousands of people lost their jobs and their pensions, and the fallout also led to the investigations into accounting practices (and the demise) of other companies like WorldCom and HealthSouth.
These scandals resulted from leaders failing to lead themselves. They read too many books about leading others and they mastered that black magic. But they never dealt with the potential blackness lurking inside their own soul, the potential blackness that lurks inside each one of us.
The challenges to our moral fiber typically fall into one of five categories—greed, lust, revenge, independence, and pride—and all five require a somewhat counterintuitive response if we’re to keep them from infecting our organizations like cancer. (I have a separate book that details these five challenges in more detail—“Five Storms in the Heart of Every Leader.”)
● Greed: The temptation to have and hold more and more stuff that we don’t really need. Antidote: We must open our hand and release what we “own.” Rather than clutching more tightly to the “stuff” of life, we must give.
● Lust: The temptation to wander with emotional and physical activity outside our covenant with God and/or our spouse. Antidote: We must take ourselves out of potentially tempting situations. We can’t “manage” our level of dangerous involvement. We have to evacuate.
● Revenge: The temptation to settle the score or balance the injustice done to us. Antidote: We must stand still. We can’t retaliate and strike back. We have to trust justice to a higher authority. We must forgive.
● Independence: The temptation to fly solo; the feeling that no one can really identify with our world and that we are all alone in sorting and navigating life. Antidote: We must “lean in” to someone else with transparency and vulnerability. We must engage others.
● Pride: The temptation to think we’re the sole cause and source of success, significance and security. Antidote: We must promote others. Instead of sliding into self-focus, we discipline ourselves to shift our attention and energies to others.
Most leaders face all five of those temptations at some point in our lives, and how we react impacts everyone around us. So we have to lead ourselves before we can safely lead others. The wisest man of all time, Solomon, in his Book of Proverbs, advised readers to learn from the ant that drives itself even though “it has no commander.” It needs no constant cheerleading from those around it to get out and gather food before the harsh winds of winter kill all nutrition above the ground. It leads and manages itself.
Where do you need to push yourself? Where have you indulged inner moral laziness? A leader who does not hold himself to a high standard on inner character before he takes the lead risks becoming a lemming.

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