A Few Thoughts on Leadership

For the past several days, I’ve been examining what I know about leadership. Some of it’s relevant to books I’m working on; some of it is applicable to some circumstances my wife and I have been discussing. One conclusion I came to is that a lot is said about leadership, but much of it is either untrue or not relevant to a given situation.

Because of the honors program and scholarship I had in college, I graduated with a minor in Leadership. We took classes in a variety of areas – ethics, decision-making, group psychology, and yes, leadership. The program “icon” was Theodore Roosevelt (a man that, seven years out of college, I finally no longer despise), and thus a lot of our leadership discussions/conferences/luncheons/etc focused around him.

But I’ve found that “leadership” as discussed in such ways is often too large a scope, too broad a concept, to apply when it’s really relevant.

I’ve been a leader of different groups going back to my time in high school. I was president or officer of several different clubs and organizations. I typically coordinated group projects for classes. And those roles didn’t change much when I went to college; I often found myself doing the same things.

But I also got myself into leadership positions (sometimes unwillingly) in a very different area, too: online gaming.

My earliest experiences were with an online gaming group that played custom missions for games with competitions for top score and best narratives. In those early days, I didn’t have Internet at home, and many of my fellow gamers in the group either had similar situations or didn’t have fast enough connections or computers to make direct online gaming feasible. I intentionally sought (and achieved) leadership roles, which gave me a small degree of prestige and a lot of work.

Later, after going to college, I started playing massively multiplayer online games – in those days, best thought of as living, breathing, but virtual worlds. (Modern MMOs tend to play not-so-differently from a regular game, save difficulty and time commitments.) I had learned lessons from my earlier experiences in online gaming and didn’t seek leadership roles, yet they found me anyway.

It was after I started resigning those leadership roles and attempted to try some new things that I began to notice trends. These trends became even more obvious after a stint as manager at my last job, before resigning to start working on more novels and to stay home with the Peanut.

While we often discuss how our leaders need to be the best and brightest and smartest people, I’ve found that our actual leaders are seldom any of those three – and for good reason. This led me to my first principle of leadership: our leaders tend to be the most active people in an organization.

Time to make up statistics!

In my experience, something like 75% of the people in a given organization are “average” – they aren’t exceptionally active or inactive and generally go along with most anything the leadership decides to do (barring some terrible decisions). In most cases, I don’t mind being in that 75%.

Of the remaining 25%, let’s say 15% are Active In Name Only. Yes, we’ll call them AINOs, which makes no sense at all, but we’ll go for it. These are the people that don’t show up, or do show up but don’t participate, or show up, complain about the decisions, and do nothing to support the group. Every organization I’ve been in has some AINOs – the trick is to keep the number minimized and to prevent them from sapping the energy and momentum of a group.

Then there’s the final 10%. Those are your ultra-active members. They’re the ones who have fingers in every pie and are suggesting new recipes all the time. They seldom complain but throw themselves whole-heartedly into the work of the organization. (In my early gaming days, that was me entirely, and I burned myself out doing so.) Few people remain ultra-active; with time, they slip into the 75% or even all the way down to AINO status.

However, these 10% tend to be put into the leadership roles. And that’s a good thing. Putting a 75%er or an AINO in charge is a good way to kill a group; it’s important for the leadership to be that 10% of highly-active, highly-motivated, high-energy people, because they will do their best to bring the group along. That sort of energy is infectious, and without it, groups whither and die.

This leads into the second principle I’ve found: once a leader of a group, always a leader of a group.

If someone has risen through the ranks and become an active leader, they tend to always be viewed as a leader. After stepping down from the leadership role, their opinion will still be sought after and given a heavy amount of weight.

It goes even further than that, though. If that now ex-leader leaves the group to start a new group or join a competing group, members of the former group will follow.

I’ll give an example from my gaming days.

Anyone who knows my gaming habits knows I love flying. (I like it in real life, too, but it’s rather expensive.) I’ve played quite a few flight sims over the years, like Falcon and the Jane’s series, but the one that hooked me the most was (due to my other interests) the classic X-Wing series.

Now, when I went to college, Star Wars Galaxies came out that same year. I picked it up and played it casually until the first expansion came out: Jump to Lightspeed, which added space combat themed similarly (though the mechanics were different) to the old X-Wing games I loved.

I played it obsessively at times, and casually at others, but almost never walked away from it for more than a week or so at a time. The guild I played with tried roping me into leadership for the space division multiple times, but I avoided it right up until the Rebel space coordinator on the server (the man, the myth, the legend: Gwreng) quit and turned everything over to me.

Suddenly, I was in charge.

I became a fixture in the space scene on our server. (It’s a good thing this happened in college, because if I tried putting that kind of time into a game now, it’d probably cost me my marriage, even though my wife enjoys gaming, too.) As often happens, though, over time I slowly burned out. I think I was the space coordinator for about a year and a half, and our guild leader for about ten months, when I finally insisted on stepping down.

I played with the old guild for about a month after my resignation as leader, and found I couldn’t stay anymore. For major decisions, one of two things happened: either I was consulted in detail, and it annoyed me, or I wasn’t consulted, and the resulting decision bothered me even more. (That’s not to say the decisions made were necessarily wrong; I had spent too much time in charge there to fall back into the normal ranks.)

So I quit the guild. It was not done in a mean-spirited way; in my resignation, I asked guild members to stay. I had decided to form a new group with a different purpose (training pilots) and didn’t want to sabotage the group I’d spent years playing with.

In spite of my best intentions, the group still splintered with my departure. It didn’t happen immediately, but within six months of my leaving I had several of their best vets on my roster as trainers and a core of others had left to form several new groups.

And oddly enough, even those who formed new groups /still/ looked to me for guidance.

And that could be a problem. When my own energy and interest waned, so too did some of the groups. My actions had further-reaching consequences than I realized, particularly my (I can now say) wrong-headed reactions to certain developments in the game. Even when I wasn’t officially in charge, my mistakes still led others down detrimental paths.

That last part is what sparked this whole reflection, because I’m seeing it offline these days. Old leaders who no longer have the enthusiasm they once did now negatively affect the activities of their groups, and they usually don’t even realize it.

Once a leader, always a leader.

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