The Gentleman Leader

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2023

Caption: Don Quixote illustration by Honoré Daumier (1808-79).

A friend’s passing – let’s call him Norbert - set me thinking about what characterized his leadership.
Norbert hired me for an executive job; he was my boss for a few years prior to his being sidelined into an advisory position at the university in which we worked. (That was one of many instances of “quiet firing” I observed during my career.)
My thoughts of him kept coming back to a defining term: gentleman, a Gentleman Leader.
I’ve met a few in my career, and I must say gentlemen do not have an easy time of it in organizations.
Well, unless they have extraordinary social skills. I am not talking as much about just the diplomatic or political as the internal courage to turn the other cheek - to avoid the slings and arrows and perfumed daggers from the un-gentlemen and un-ladies in any kind of business.
Gentlemen/Gentlewomen Leaders have a code. That code is more understood than explicitly stated:
There are other qualities – including the sartorial - but the above is sufficient to separate the knight errant, the preux chevalier, from the workplace’s knaves, scalawags, back-stabbers, cockalorums and rapscallions.
While Don Quixote is a classical caricature of the Knight Errant, many of his qualities, however exaggerated, are illustrative of the knightly code.
Gentleman Leader Undone
Norbert’s previous bosses all had been of the old school, gentlemen.
When a new boss was put in place, Norbert and he failed to hit it off. As mentioned, that resulted in Norbert’s being shunted aside. Shabbily so.
Not long after, Norbert retired.
We continued our friendship and we’d see each other at social events.
Did we gossip?
Not really. A gentleman does not gossip. We rarely spoke about work, past or present. We enjoyed each other’s company, there was no need for grousing to bond us together.
But one time, my friend responded to me in an uncharacteristically blunt way.
I asked him why he’d moved to a retirement community several miles distant instead of choosing the local retirement village. Each were of equal value and well regarded, so why not stay local where he’d lived for 30 years?
His response: “Because that’s where all the bastards (I had to work with) are!”
I laughed; I knew of what he spoke.
You see, the problem with being a gentleman leader is that you may have to work with men and women who have fewer scruples than you do, have more ambition, and are willing to kick others off the success ladder.
Remember, if you are dealing with the overly ambitious, then you no longer have shared values nor the desire to have honest discussions about what needs doing.
Your all-in-it-for-himself opponent is not going to have a quiet, helpful chat with you, the all-for-the-greater-good person.
Well, when unseemly ambition goes up against modest ambition, you can imagine what one may have to do. We succumb to the temptation to hit back. The maligned becomes the maligner. Norbert, as a Gentleman Leader, was incapable of sinking that low to counter betrayal.
Norbert’s gentleness somewhat tied his hands as to what he could do to improve his standing in the eyes of his superiors.
He continued to believe (and avoid conflict) that his employees were well intentioned even when they were not.
Some of this was deliberate behavior (who knows what schemes were percolating?), or it may be, that these individuals were incompetent bad hires made by a previous administration. Their's was a peculiar kind of incompetence to be found among experts; the inability to make the complex simple and the ability to make the simple overly complex.
In any case, good faith efforts on Norbert’s part failed to move the entrenched to simplify, to accept change and to innovate.
Norbert’s boss, whether a Gentleman Leader or not, saw the stalemate and made the necessary decision – however unfair - to remove Norbert.
Alas, the most entrenched and stubborn escaped while the gentleman leader was punished.
At least for the time being; change – like springtime follows winter - was just around the corner.

My book, Fables for Leaders – full of gentlemanly and un-gentlemanly allusions, is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2023

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