In a previous post, The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, I commented on ridiculously misconceived ways of describing leadership attributes. Glib business-school textbooks, sloppy newspaper articles and trite job advertisements are full of distorted hype and delusional clichés. There’s an obsession with ‘charisma’, with ‘passion’, with ‘transformational’ leadership and so on.
But why make a fuss about this inflated language? Who cares?
Well, it matters to me because, having had a fair bit to do with community-oriented programs for emerging leaders (more about that later), I believe it’s important to demythologise the concept of leadership – which means looking critically at the way people talk and write about this topic.
In considering what makes a good leader, we need to shift the focus away from captains of industry, political chiefs and other (usually male) big shots. Not all leaders occupy prominent positions at the head of an organisation. Leadership can develop, and have a significant impact, in many different roles and at all levels. It’s not primarily about the rank you hold. It’s about the influence you exert over others – which depends largely on what kind of individual you are, how you relate to those around you, what values you embody – and how you use language to communicate.
A New Yorker cartoon by Steiner (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) captures some of this nicely. The patriarchal figure at the front of his flock may think he’s in charge, but the real leadership is coming from further back – and not from an aggressive round-up sheepdog either, but from a quiet female cat. ‘She’s not all over you, but she gets the job done.’
In what I’m calling the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, personal attributes are too often idealised. In the real world, most leaders are not heroes, clairvoyants or saints. They are just ordinary individuals with an unusually strong sense of purpose, and enough basic knowledge and skills to pursue that purpose in an energetic, persuasive way that draws followers along in a shared commitment.
Leadership isn’t simply about your personal repertoire of talents and qualifications. Yes, it may help if you’re what people regards as a born leader, with great natural gifts and drive. But we’ve all seen highly gifted and motivated people crash and burn, or just fade away without ever fulfilling their promise. In contrast some people eventually achieve great things as leaders after mediocre beginnings or even a string of failures (think of Abraham Lincoln), if they know how to find value in adversity, learn from others, persevere quietly, and grow into their responsibilities.
To be influential as a leader, it’s not sufficient to have certain innate attributes. The important thing is what you do with them. Someone may possess remarkable charm but use it in a self-serving way for the satisfactions of power, status and popularity. Someone else may have brilliant capacities but never fulfil that potential because no-one wants to follow. The quality and impact of leadership depends on the way a leader relates to other people and motivates them.
For a leader, the most important kind of knowledge is an understanding of what makes people tick, what matters to them, what motivates them, what draws out the best in them. Part of this is self-knowledge: being calmly aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and of how others see you.
In addition to an understanding of people (including yourself), there’s a particular kind of know-how that is vital in a leader’s skillset: being able to imagine and tell a compelling story about where your organisation or group needs to go, and how it is going to meet the challenges that face it. I don’t mean ‘storytelling’ in the literal sense of spinning a yarn. I mean communicating a ‘vision’ in the best sense of that over-used word. Good leaders know how to engage people’s belief that a situation they face can be taken forward to a positive outcome if they are willing to shape the pattern of events. This requires the knack of persuading others to do together something substantial, difficult and worthwhile that they would not otherwise have done.
Of course it’s easy to delude yourself. The rhetoric of setting ambitious goals has to be subjected to regular reality checks. It’s been remarked that some would-be leaders talk a lot about their ‘vision’ because they don’t know how to spell hallucination. In contrast, truly visionary leadership, which can take people forward together as co-authors of a credible narrative, combines insight with outlook in a way that’s well informed and thoroughly realistic.
A cliché popular among aspiring leaders is that you should ‘follow your passion.’ What – always? Some passionate people are crazy. Think of the image in that famously scary poem by W.B. Yeats which conjures up a doomsday when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ A leader may be passionate without embodying any positive value. (Isn’t it often preferable to be compassionate?) Strong passion will sometimes weaken individuals and groups.
Genuine leaders understand that their apparent strengths can become weaknesses, and vice versa. They know themselves well. They don’t fool themselves or others with grandiloquent slogans. They know the difference between a realistic vision and a shallow mirage. They are open to experience. And their ambition is directed towards the betterment of the wider community, not just the advancement of their own personal careers.
The program devised by Leadership Western Australia (LWA) – currently celebrating its 10th anniversary – embodies those principles. (Declaration of vested interest: I was its founding CEO.) Each year’s selected cohort brings together high-achieving people from many walks of life. They differ in their backgrounds and assumptions but are alike in wanting to use that diversity as a collective learning resource for helping to meet major social challenges. After completing the LWA program, participants contribute their expertise in a pro bono capacity to not-for-profit community organisations. In doing so they benefit from the happy paradox that the best way to enhance one’s individual development as a leader is to take the focus away from oneself and look outwards and forwards to the needs of one’s community as a whole.