Are You a Dictator?

By Sarah Agan

March 31, 2014

Are you a leader who is frustrated that members of your team aren't doing what you want them to do?

Perhaps it’s time to take a look in the mirror to see whether you might be the problem.

Merriam-Webster lists among the synonyms for “leader” the words channel, conduit, duct, pipe, line, penstock, trough, tube.

All are mechanisms that allow things to flow through them. While the modern use of the word leader in organizations is widely understood, there might be something to learn from what these synonyms suggest a leader is.

Channels, conduits, ducts, tubes: All have to do with being a mechanism to ensure the flow of something from one place to another. As a leader, do you see yourself as a mechanism for ensuring things get from one place to another? Note that the synonyms do not include anything related to being a spigot, source, gate or dam.

If you are leader generating ideas and pushing them down for others to implement and you aren’t getting the results you want, perhaps you might try a different tact. What if you gave up your need to be the spigot and source of everything and allowed yourself to simply become the mechanism for the ideas of others to travel where they need to go? I know, it requires you give up your need to be in charge and have the answers. Most significantly, it requires you trust others.

In many ways, this notion of a leader as a channel or mechanism through which things need to flow is consistent with prevailing theory around servant leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leadership” in The Servant as Leader, an essay published in 1970. Other well-known advocates of servant leadership include Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, M. Scott Peck and Margaret Wheatley, to name a few.  According to Greenleaf’s essay, his servant as leader philosophy had its roots in a work of 1958 fiction:

"The idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In this story, we see a band of men on a mythical journey . . . The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader."

The discourse about leadership is dynamic and varied and perhaps we will never collectively agree on what a leader should be (e.g., commander in chief, guiding spirit, coach). What we can do is continue to explore the textured nuances that weave together the fabric of our human experience. Perhaps the most important question we can answer is: “Who am I as a leader?”

If you are a leader who has leaned more on positional authority (titular power) or telling others what to do (delegating, directing, dictating) and you aren’t getting the results you want, perhaps an experiment is in order. What if you subverted your ego in favor of taking a test drive with servant leadership practices? What if you saw yourself not as the spigot but as the channel? Let others be the source and you be the mechanism for helping them and their ideas manifest as fully as possible.

Three things you can try to get started:

So, if you are a leader frustrated with your team and finding blame everywhere but in the mirror, maybe it’s time to become a channel, duct or conduit by taking a page from the playbook of servant leadership.

(Image via Richard Jary/

By Sarah Agan

March 31, 2014