The year was 1184 B.C. The Greeks had been at war with the Trojans for 10 years but, try as they did, they could not penetrate the city of Troy.
In a last-ditch effort, Odysseus, the legendary Greek King and erstwhile leader, came up with an ingenious plan. He had his men build a wooden horse, a horse being the emblem of Troy, and leave it at the gates of Troy disguised as a gift and offering of peace, an atonement for the destruction caused by the war.
The Trojans (the residents of Troy) fell for the trick and on seeing the retreating Greeks, opened their gates and wheeled the horse past their defense lines into the city of Troy.
Unknown to the unsuspecting Trojans, thirty of Greek’s finest soldiers, including Odysseus himself, sat well positioned inside the horse and when night fell, they let themselves out of it and opened Troy’s gates from the inside, letting in the rest of the Greek army which had made their way back to the outer gates under the cover of darkness after pretending to retreat.
The Greeks then destroyed the city in so doing winning and ending the war, or so the story goes.
Over time since those many years ago, a ‘Trojan horse’ has come to mean any trick or stratagem where a target invites a foe into an otherwise securely protected place and is overpowered in the process.
There are several examples of where this can happen in leadership, but I would like to focus on one in particular, the leadership trap. Yes, the power that leadership gives one can act as a snare for unsuspecting or unprepared leaders, leading them down a path of destructive leadership.
Temptations in the leadership path abound and it is easy for one to fall for them unless they stay grounded.
Great leaders losing their moral bearings at the height of their career, leaders previously known for high integrity getting engaged in, and accepting unethical behavior and leaders who started off well as caring for the good of all, suddenly falling astray and caring only for those who chant their praises. Such are the outcomes that this trap leads to.
Generally speaking, anyone who seeks to get into a leadership position for extrinsic rather than intrinsic reward is most prone to falling into this trap.
Leadership must be sought for the benefit of those that one leads rather than for own benefit. It is therefore critical that before one seeks a leadership position they must ask themselves why they seek it, and what outcome they seek to achieve out of it.
Any answer that remotely resembles self-benefit as a purpose (like wealth, power and prestige) must be taken as a sign that you may easily fall prey to the trap.
Loss of trust (tendency to ‘do-it-yourself’), opposition to constructive criticism, placing ‘relationship’ above ‘performance’, mounting discomfort towards rational debate, leading by decree (“my way or the highway”), ‘owning’ credit for successes and ‘distancing’ self from failures and surrounding one-self with sycophants are all signs that one has become a victim, and are unknowingly being devoured by the dangerous creatures living deep within the trap.
Because the signs are extrinsic in nature, a leader who has fallen into the trap is very easy to spot, and when they are spotted there is often shock amongst the victims of such leadership because most people start off well but fall off on the wayside along the journey.
How then does one avoid falling into the trap? One effective tool against doing so is to practice value centered leadership. Essentially all leaders, as are all human beings, start out with a good value system engrained in them. Identifying the values that make you uniquely you is a first step in the right direction.
Once you have discovered that ‘true north’, so to speak, strategically and tactfully staying true to it becomes the challenge one must win. There are three basic principles that will help one in that quest;
The first one lies around becoming a master at whatever you do and doing it to the highest standard.
Not taking shortcuts in achieving the outcome in your chosen trade keeps you focused on the goal and leaves no room for the ghosts of the leadership trap to come ‘sneaking in’.
Secondly, ensuring great chemistry with and amongst those that lead with you by ensuring that your relationship is based on trust and mutual development ensures that you don’t develop pockets of sycophancy which lead to unhealthy competition and bad ‘politics’, and finally, being mentally and visibly dedicated to enhancing the community in which you serve creates a sense of responsibility towards that community that will keep you focused on a sense of purpose towards them.
In closing, seek to stay grounded as a leader by surrounding yourself with people who are not afraid of telling you the truth for it is they who will steer you away from the leadership trap. Don’t be like the Trojans who were warned against wheeling the deadly horse into the gates of Troy by their high priest, Laocoon, by his famous warning, “I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts”. Rather than reward Laocoon for his foresight, he was not only ignored but put to death before he could say why.