Leadership is not necessarily about getting people to follow you.
In fact, the test of leadership effectiveness is what happens when you’re not there. If everything depends on you and falls apart when you’re not there, obviously the effectiveness of your team is limited. You can’t be there all the time.
At times you might be in front. But other times, it might be more effective to be among those following, as illustrated in the story about The Empty Carriage.
Or in the words of Lao Tzu,
To lead people, walk beside them …
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate …
When the best leader’s work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!
Leadership is about influencing people to go somewhere together. Once they are mobilized, movement takes on a life of its own.
Leadership itself is inherently neutral. It can result in either good or evil.
History offers plenty of examples of leaders who united people to commit horrible acts against fellow human beings. We don’t have to go far back into history to find them – Hitler and Pol Pot on a large scale, and on a small scale Jim Jones and Charles Manson, for example.
History also offers us a lot of examples of leaders who united people for a common good that takes us to a better place – such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. on a large scale. And there are many examples on a small scale. Interestingly, these leaders are not as widely known as their negative counterparts, perhaps because we assume the point of leadership is to take people to a better place.
Leaders unite people around the dream of a better future – for themselves and for their children.
When that dream is exclusive – focused solely on self-interest or the interest of a specific group – others who are not part of that group suffer.
When the dream is inclusive – focused on both self-interest and the greater good – everyone benefits.
This is leadership that matters.
“Leaders unite people around the dream of a better future – for themselves and for their children.” This idea and the Lao Tzu quote grabbed me hard…in a wonderful way. The idea that the most powerful leadership is, in its way, invisible offers a wonderful paradox in sight of how most people view leadership; i.e., as a high visibility action that transcends the people it is designed to lead.
Nice, Jesse! Many thanks.
I appreciate your picking that out, Larry. In my post A Definition of Leadership, I proposed that leadership is not an action at all, but a phenomenon that occurs as a result of the interaction between a leader and a follower. (If a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it, is there a sound?) When we look closely at the intersection of leadership and followership, we see we are not passive recipients. We need to take responsibility to choose our leaders wisely lest they appeal to the darker side of human nature.
Thanks, Jesse, for reminding us of the best kind of leadership which benefits the individual and the greater good. And by greater good, I mean our human evolution toward compassion and peace.
A lovely thought – supporting the evolution of humanity. Thanks for taking this conversation deeper, Marye Gail.
Jesse, I’ve always loved the last line of the Lao Tzu quote “We did it ourselves!”
Strikes me that good leadership is transparent and in many ways anonymous and the leader has no ego investment and doesn’t need or particularly want the credit…it’s much more about the mission / objective /good to be served.
Well said, Stewart. Ego investment pushes the needle toward exclusivity and reinforces the “collective ego investment” of the follower group.
I hope you are well. Your comments are very true but realistic , yet
also positive and encouraging
So glad to hear that, Ravi. That is my intention.
Call me crazy, Jesse, but was the inspiration for this post in anyway triggered by the current political climate? 🙂
Thanks for asking, Lowell. It is certainly exemplified right now.
When leaders promote fear, people become closed down, insular and self-protective. It is a biological reflex. We need to consciously step out of this reactive instinct and choose leaders who create an inclusive vision of a better future. In the long run, this is in our real self-interest. Gandhi said it well “The enemy is fear . We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
Your timing is perfect.Public attention has been focused on a so-called “leader” who is absolutely so filled with ego that he states he is the ONLY one who can lead. Inclusive is not in his vocabulary. Thanks to your article, I can take a stand about what leadership means and why it matters. That’s why we created http://www.trueleadercreed.com Thanks Jesse for always being a beacon of truth.
The leadership that Donald Trump offers is based on exclusiveness – he frequently uses the terms “us” and “them.” His authoritarian approach appeals to those who feel bleak about their future. But it is a false promise. Those of us who work in the field of leadership understand that the long-term effect of this kind of leadership is repression. I appreciate your invitation to take a stand for inclusive leadership by signing The True Leader Creed.
Jesse Lyn, Your post got me thinking.
I couldn’t agree any more that a powerful starting point for any discussion on Leadership is that it’s not so much what you do, as what you want to get. Why is this not a well-worn path in any Leadership discussion? And here’s my take on why, and I’d love to hear your thoughts:
Dating back to the days of Scientific Management/ F W Taylor,etc, being in a leadership position meant that you needed to exercise a large amount of control.
And that was acceptable because it sits comfortably with human nature – that if you take/ have responsibility for something, that you avoid/ minimize the risk of social failure/ blame by cranking up as much control as needed.
Then if it all goes well, you can rightly accept all bragging rights. If it goes pear-shaped, you can divert blame with “I did everything in my power, they just stuffed up. It was like herding cats!”
Like you point out, great leadership (and a whole lot of other things like managing, selling, parenting)is defined by what happens when we’re not there.
So the extension/ implication is that a great leader is someone who can gradually wean themselves off the need for control… Problem is people in leadership positions become addicted to control.
So that’s why the business concept of Leadership has generally failed us. It takes a very special kind of person to occupy a leadership position, accepts responsibility (for achieving business goals) and who is happy to relinquish control. Or a very special kind of company culture.
Hi Mark, You raise a very interesting question that I have been thinking a lot about lately. I agree with your points and appreciate your taking the time to share them. I think it would be helpful to also look at where we are developmentally collectively, as Marye Gail Harrison mentioned in her comment. Looking at Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, I believe we have collectively been in Level 2. The kind of leadership I am describing is Level 3. Many people are already operating at Level 3, and I believe we are capable of collectively taking that step.
Jesse, I did some reading of Kohlberg’s work, and yeah, moving to the “greater good” sounds terrific. Your point is understandable and valid.
But here’s the thing, and a great story.
This Tuesday, here in Australia, the Melbourne Cup will be run. It’s a very important horse race .. in fact, they call it “the race that stops a nation.”
Quite a few years back the government (of the time) held a Cabinet meeting in Melbourne a few days before the race. At the end of the meeting, the Prime Minister emerged and held a press conference. As you’d expect there were lots of politically slanted questions… and as the interview drew to a close, one journalist asked, “Prime Minister, do you have a tip for the Cup?”
His reply was,”Well, I’m not sure who’s running, but if Self Interest is, I guarantee you that it’ll be there at the end.”
And I think that’s what most people experience with business leadership; that self-interest trumps the greater good.
Good points, Mark – “self-interest Trumps the greater good.” We can’t force ourselves or others to move to a higher level of development, and Kohlberg postulates that most people are at Level 2, especially when we think we’re going to lose something. A leader that plays to that fear and promotes it, will Trump the greater good every time.
You remind us – and thank you for not naming names – of what is missing in at least one of our current political candidates.
Thanks, Fay. I actually did name names in my comments. I am deeply concerned about the devisive stance of Donald Trump. There are times we need to take a stand and name the truth as we see it. According to Dante, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain neutrality in times of moral crisis.”