“Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.”
– Chinese proverb
It’s a subject that’s been discussed heavily in depth for millennia. Leadership: the art, skill, trade, or whatever you want to call it of inspiring people to follow your lead, by making them want to… or causing them to fear not to.
But what is leadership?
Everyone has a different reply.
Napoleon said that leadership is being “a dealer in hope.”
Lao Tzu said a leader does things in a way such that people will feel they did it themselves.
And Eisenhower called leadership “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
I’ve spent a lifetime surrounding myself with incredibly strong, world class personalities. Men that others would consider leaders. Men who, given the right opportunities, would and may yet distinguish themselves as legendary figures. And as I’ve walked among these men, I’ve seen many different styles of leadership… and I’ve practiced some of those styles myself. What it’s taught me has been extraordinarily insightful, and the things I’ve learned about what leadership have opened the possibilities of the world up to me.
It’s my intention to share with you those lessons today. To paint for you a picture of my understanding – what I’ve seen, what I’ve done, and what I’ve witnessed others do. What seems to work, and what seems not to. I’m going to share with you the answer to the question “What is leadership?” as best I possibly can – and I hope you’ll come along with me for a wild, revealing ride.
The Origins of Leadership
“He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.”
I spent my early years under the tutelage of many talented leaders. And those I could not directly work with, I studied. I studied men I considered to be the masters of leadership – those who gathered others to their cause. Those who inspired rabid loyalty among their disciples. And those who, above all else, got things done that benefited people.
Everyone has this myth of leaders always having been leaders. Not true. The best of leaders are those who have learned to lead by taking on the strengths and characteristics of other great leaders.
The most naturally talented young basketball player in the world would only ever get so far if he never took instruction from a good coach, never studied the maneuvers of a great player, never played on a team with other talents he could study and observe and learn from.
The most naturally talented piano player in the world would likewise only get so far if he never worked under a prominent musician himself or never had a teacher to train his mind and his ear.
What is leadership if not an art? Just like sports, music, painting, dance, kung-fu and karate, free-climbing and parkour, sculpting and carving, writing and drawing, leadership is an art form learned through both practice and mentorship, and one’s learning curve can be sped up dramatically by learning from those talented in the art around him.
A great boss of mine once told me, “When you’re a new manager, people will test you to see if you’re serious. So you can’t wait around for them to start working on something you’ve told them to do, because then they’ll wait to see what happens if they don’t. Instead, you’ve got to just tell them what to do and walk away.”
How long would it have taken me to learn that piece of advice on my own? Months or years most likely. Instead, I had it handed to me and instantly incorporated it into my leadership style.
I have known men who wanted to lead who had never learned to obey. Those men universally failed as commanders because they did not understand those they commanded. They thought that if they simply provided leadership and direction, those under their command would be grateful for that and appreciate them. They did not understand that as the commander, your responsibility is to be the caretaker of the emotions of others, not to have them take care of yours.
A Building Up of Others
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
– Mark Twain
One of the first things I learned as a budding leader was that to truly lead, you must build others up into what they wish to become.
I have witnessed a variety of efforts by men trying to lead. I have seen the following:
- Men who lay generic flattery upon others
- Men who forget to provide any build up at all
- Men who tear others down
Each of those is bad for separate reasons.
Generic flattery communicates to someone that you really aren’t paying attention to them, really don’t care to take the time to get to know them, and are unconcerned with their true strengths and achievements. Worse, it tells them you are a fake, a phony, and a charlatan – someone who snakes his way to people’s good graces by whispering the same things you’ve said many times to many people again and again.
Forgetting to build others up is neutral – it does not make them love you, nor does it cause them to hate you. They may come to resent you with time when their efforts all go unrecognized, however, and they may come to perform less and less.
Tearing others down is the worst form of false leadership there is – it’s an attempt to control by convincing others how much they need you. “You were never going to do that – unless I helped you.” It builds first need and panic in the person torn down, but then, with time, resentment and hostility mount and mount as he realizes he is being controlled by a leader without his best interests at heart.
The people who use these methods aren’t bad people – but they can frequently come to be seen as such by the people they use them on.
The truly effective leader builds others up, takes a genuine interest in people, recognizes their actual strengths and positive traits, and provides a path for others toward achieving their goals.
How exactly this is done we’ll discuss in detail below.
What is Leadership?
“If the whole world followed you, would you be pleased with where you took it?”
– Neale Donald Walsch
Leadership is not simply being in charge; this much you know. Think of a bad boss you’ve had, or a poor teacher. While that person was technically in charge, he or she was not truly a leader.
And leadership is not telling others what to do or barking orders or commands. Many people mistake this for leadership but this is not what leadership is.
No, leadership is about doing something more. Leadership is about knowing what people need and how to get it to them, or how to help them achieve it themselves. Leadership is about knowing the path that everyone else seeks, and showing them the way down it. And leadership is about inspiring men to take action when they otherwise might not.
Have you ever listened to a speech that really gave you goose bumps? That made you ready to go do whatever the speaker dared to ask you? What was it about what that speaker said that made you react so powerfully in favor of him?
I’ve personally identified these 8 factors as the primary ones in determining whether someone is truly a great leader.
- He provides direction and inspires confidence. The word “leader” comes from, at its most basic, the word “lead,” which of course means to take someone or something somewhere. To lead, you must know where you are going. It doesn’t always have to be a concrete goal or objective – you could be leading a team out of the Congo with the only objective of “make it out alive” – but it needs to be something that you know, unquestioningly, what it is.
- He understands those he leads. There’s nothing worse than having a boss at work who just doesn’t get what you need to be happy at work. And someone like that as a public figure people simply won’t follow at all. To lead, you must know what people want. Not what they say they want – but what they actually want. You must be a student of the human condition, and you must learn to read between the lines. That employee of yours telling you he wants to be rich may really just want to be secure. Force him into high stakes situations where he has the chance to get rich but also place him into very insecure situations and he may well fold on you and come to resent you and undermine you. That other employee telling you he wants to be rich may actually just want excitement. Give him a boring job that pays well and before long he’ll quit. You must read between the lines.
- He tells his followers he needs them. Try and picture, in your head for a moment, a leader standing behind a podium saying, “I don’t need ANY of you!” Tough time imagining that, right? Thought so. Especially in the West these days, we like to think of ourselves as totally independent and self-reliant. But a leader is nothing without his followers – he knows it, and so do they. So rather than pretend to be independent, he owns his dependence. That’s why you hear leaders so often saying, “I can’t do it without YOU.” While you can’t be needy, you also don’t want to pretend to not need people at all if you are to lead them.
- He puts the blame on his shoulders, except when rallying. Ever find yourself playing the “blame game?” You know, the one where you point your finger and tell other people it’s their faults and they point their fingers and tell you it’s your fault. Now picture a man you see as a strong leader. Can you imagine him pointing his finger and saying, “It’s his fault!” Leaders blame themselves for their failures – except when rallying the troops, of course.
- He isn’t afraid to make enemies. A leader isn’t afraid to choose enemies to whip his disciples into a frenzy to vanquish. The enemy doesn’t necessarily have to be a person, or even a group of people – it can be an industry (like lobbying, in politics) or a mindset (like laziness trapping you in apathy forever) or a political persuasion (like being against Communism). It just has to be something that his disciples will rail against, and build the kind of energy and enthusiasm he can use to win.
- But he knows how to make friends, too. One of the best ways to put a cap on how effective a leader you can become is to see everyone in the world as either above you or below you, and constantly jockeying for status. When you are jockeying for status you can never truly make allies, because you will always be competing with them to see who is on top. Instead, see yourself as a leader, and other leaders as potential allies – not potential disciples or potential competition for the top spot.
- He knows he needs to show humanity, but never to seem uncertain. Humans are fickle creatures. We want our leaders to be resolute and unwavering. And the instant we see them waver, we lose confidence. Leaders cannot publicly waver – all you have to do is watch your nation’s politics to see again and again what instant death being a “flip flopper” is for credibility. At the same time, a leader must show humanity and must not pretend to be perfect, or he will come across insincere. There’s a fine line there to walk – but the leader must find that line, and walk it.
- And finally… he must genuinely believe. Nothing kills leadership like lack of belief. It undermines everything else – certainty, confidence, the ability to rally and the ability to inspire. The ability to ask others to join your cause. The ability to make friends and enemies. The ability to win. If a leader does not have a cause he believes in, he cannot win. Therefore, no matter what flag you are riding for, make certain – absolutely certain – it is one you believe in.
Leadership in the Face of Adversity
“Any one can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”
– Publilius Syrus
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We joke around that that means when things get difficult, strong people just leave, but what it actually means (or meant, originally) is that when things get difficult, strong people get to work – they get going.
What do you think would’ve happened to England in World War II if Winston Churchill, in the midst of the German bombing raids, said, “Ah, this is too hard. Let’s just surrender?” How about what would’ve happened to civil rights for minorities in the US or the majority in South Africa if King, Jr. or Mandela threw their hands up and said, “You know what? Never mind.”
On the other hand, look at some of the horror stories out there. The colonialists threw up their hands and handed over rule of Rhodesia to the Zimbabwean rebels, who then forcibly seized all the farmland from lifelong farmers, gave it to soldiers as payment for their service, and plunged the country into famine – when it had once been the provider of food to many other African nations. Or just about any political candidate you see burn out and step down, or if you’ve ever had a boss who just couldn’t take the job anymore and burned out of it.
Sometimes, the fight isn’t worth it. Sometimes you get halfway into something, only to realize the amount of work it entails far exceeds the projected value you’ll get out of it. Then you start to lose focus, and it’s over after that.
But what is leadership if not giving strength to those dependent upon you in times of great stress and dire need?
In any difficult situation, a leader must ask himself:
- Why have things become so tough?
- If I am thinking about quitting, why?
- Is there anything I can do that will salvage the situation?
- Did I ever really believe, or did I get myself involved in the wrong thing?
A true leader, who’s truly on the right path, will recognize he’s on the right path, and he’ll steady his ship in those rough waters. Because humans, if left to their own devices, behave like herd animals; they follow one another, even right off a cliff.
It takes a leader, who knows his people, and knows his path, and knows what he must do and what he must say, to stop them from going over that cliff. And just like that Chinese proverb that we opened the article with states, it is not the leader’s talk that wins him disciples; it is not his bluster, his posing, or his presentation. It is his actions that make others want to lend their hearts and minds to him. It is his leadership, itself, that causes them to do so.
The leader must take charge to steer his ship through the broiling waters of the tempest. For if he is not there to do it, surely no one else will be either.
Except that… well, sometimes – just sometimes – those broiling waters tossing about a ship not helmed are exactly what cause leaders to arise and awaken to their calling in the first place. They’re the ones who say, “Fine – if no one else will lead, than I shall,” and after that, they do.
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