What is leadership all about? What does it take to be a leader in today’s world?
These are questions which I found myself pondering over the last few days after noticing a trend lately regarding how some people are choosing to define the traits of a successful leader. Although I’ve written about the debate regarding whether leadership should be viewed as either an art or a science, this current train of thought has surfaced in part from my dismay at seeing what others are pointing out as valuable lessons that leaders today should adopt in how they lead their team or organization.
For example, one idea that’s garnering a lot of press is the notion that the success or vision a given organization has is the sole product of a single individual. Of course, as many of us know from personal experience, the ability of a team to achieve success is not due to the efforts of one person, but from the ability of the different members to work together in pursuit of a shared goal.
Also, while an organization’s vision originates with its leader, it’s only through encouraging employees to participate in its evolution and development that it truly takes hold and serves to define both what their organization wants to accomplish and how.
Consider the example of President Kennedy’s vision of sending a man to the Moon within a decade. While there’s no doubt that Kennedy was responsible for getting the ball rolling, the idea only became a reality because others were willing to adapt and transform his vision into something that had meaning for them as well. If the vision rested solely with Kennedy, scientists and engineers would never have been inspired to design and create the Saturn V rockets that took us to the Moon, along with the lunar lander from which we took that symbolic step onto another world.
Another troubling concept being passed about lately is the idea that leaders don’t need to listen to their customers or their teams, but should instead trust their own “inner voice” to guide them in directing their organization. In this age of social media, where hard-earned reputations can be easily and at times irreparably damaged, it borders on the absurd to suggest that leaders ignore those they are supposed to serve, relying only on their limited perceptions to determine the best course of action for their organization and employees.
Indeed, over the last few months, there have been countless examples of CEOs and boards making baffling decisions about their organization, all from the vantage point that they know better than anyone of what’s in the best interests of those they are supposed to serve. Ironically, it’s only when they began to listen to those who do know best that they were able to realize that a mistake had been made and began to make course corrections to help get their organization back on track.
If nothing else, a leader’s unwillingness to listen to others ensures not only a lack of understanding of the needs others have, but of what they can do to address them.
For some reason, it seems that many of these business experts have forgotten that leadership is not about you; it’s about what you can do for others. And how can one truly know what you can offer others through your talents and resources if you’re not attentive to the needs, concerns, and challenges faced by those you serve. We all suffer from our own forms of confirmation bias and assuming that you internally know what others need from you is not only a recipe for disaster, but it’s no doubt the reason why so many reputable organizations are now adrift without any clear sense of direction or purpose.
In a recent conversation with someone whose insights on leadership and vision I respect, I mentioned how it’s time that we stop promoting the idea of the leader being this lone wolf manning the helm of their organization. Those who serve in leadership positions understand that to be successful in this role is to make yourself obsolete, as opposed to making yourself the focal point of attention. This is not wishful thinking; rather, it’s key if organizations are to have a life of their own beyond that of those who man its steering wheel or who first chartered their course.
Again, this goes counter to what many are writing lately about success and leadership, in large part because so many insist that only a rare few can ever achieve greatness as a leader of others. But is it really accurate to say that it takes someone exceptional to be a great leader? Or is it that great leaders are those who are driven to help those they lead become exceptional, by helping their employees achieve greatness themselves through the use and expression of own talents, inspiration, and creativity towards attaining a shared goal?
We have to remember that leadership is bigger than any one person; that it’s about what leaders foster in others to achieve rather than anything they themselves accomplish. After all, the very definition of leadership is to have others who are willing to follow you, something that can no longer be achieved through the command-and-control approach. Rather, what’s needed from leaders is a demonstration of their commitment and desire to not only help others achieve success, but to openly recognize an organization’s accomplishments are the result of a collective effort.
I’ve made the comment elsewhere that business is now facing its own form of global warming; of dealing with changes which, while subtle, will nonetheless require us to rethink not only the way we approach business, but of how we view our roles and functions within our organization.
And while we’ve enjoyed sharing stories revolving around a single protagonist who after enduring almost unimaginable challenges and consequences savours victory at the end, the time has come for us to recognize that this protagonist exists in all of us. We just need to bring it out into the light so we may do our part to move things forward – for our organization, our community and ultimately ourselves.
Although there can be no doubt that each of us has the ability to make a difference, imagine the difference we’d make if we gathered our efforts towards a common objective; of working together to achieve a shared goal and celebrating the effort as an example of what happens when we pool our talent and resources together.
That, for me at least, is what leadership is all about.