What is real leadership?

Imagine a large auditorium, packed to capacity, eager and anxious faces everywhere, waiting for their leader to emerge. As he steps up, standing tall at 6’4″, eyes twinkling with good humor, a commanding presence on the stage, 3000 eyes riveted on him, he delivers his vision for the organization, with the practiced ease of a great orator, with a healthy dose of ambition and paranoia. As he completes his speech, the room erupts in applause. 

Now imagine a slightly different scene… An organization in a turnaround, the leader has put the team in an uncomfortable situation where they need to work across traditionally opposed ideas  to find common ground. And then, he leaves. The team looks at each other and dives right in, the debate heats up, one person stands up and takes over writing on the board, another walks over and asks the team a tough question, gets a raw answer, the debate rages, they keep at it, till they believe they have an unconventional approach that solves the problem. They hi-five each as they leave the room. 

Most of us have experienced both these situations; the awe and inspiration from being in the presence of a captivating leader, and the exhilaration that comes from being part of a team that worked through challenging issues to achieve something important to them and their organization. 

So, which one is leadership? Some of us may think the first is, while some, already wise to the game, may say both. Many others may think it may even be the same person. 

Well, in these two specific scenarios, the first one was a leader who led by fear, charismatic, but flawed… and the second was an introverted leader, you might not be able to pick out of a crowd… The first caused lasting damage to the organization, while the second created an organization that continued its positive momentum, even after the leader moved on. 

Quiet by Susan Cain is an amazing read and provides a great perspective on the power on introverts.

We talk about leadership a lot! A google search on ‘leadership’ found over a billion results! That is the power of the concept of leadership. However, think back to conversations about leaders, whether in business, or politics, an unusually high number are about the leader himself, herself – their leadership qualities or traits, motivators, styles, personality, competencies etc etc. 

Why we are more obsessed with leaders, than leadership? Why do we focus more on the individual, than the impact they have?

I have always wondered why we are more obsessed with leaders, than leadership. Why do we focus more on the individual, than the impact they have? Leaders are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We need leaders to have a vision and inspire, and energize their teams to deliver a better future. However, when we obsess over leaders alone, we end up with three unintended consequences:

  1. We create narcissistic leaders– We have perhaps wasted far too much time hung up on individuals without holding them accountable for teams, culture and positive impact to our world. Has that led to too much focus on self interest rather than organization and team? Think of the conversations we have everyday as we obsess over leaders, label them superstars, feed their egos by fawning on them and being transfixed by whatever they say, and then, inevitably label them narcissistic… We seem to love the drama of their ascent against all odds-our hero, and their inevitable fall from grace.
  2. We miss opportunities to acknowledge real leadership – When you see an environment where high performing effective teams come together to do more than they individually ever could, that is real leadership at work. Positive team dynamics are the mirror that reflect real leadership. These can easily fly under the radar, if we aren’t actively looking for it.
  3. We don’t leverage the power of diversity – Our vocabulary is overwhelmed with terms such as leading from the front, leading the charge, rallying the troops, scaling the mountain, conquering the summit, hitting it out of the park, destroy competition, win at all costs, etc. It almost seems as though a majority of our vocabulary on leadership was born either on the battlefield or at the ball park. Do these terms sound gender neutral? Do these terms sound race / nationality neutral? Do they sound introversion/ extroversion neutral? Our unconscious biases lead us to pick more leaders in the image of those already in power. 

When we define leadership based on outcome – that is gender neutral , race neutral, national origin neutral, we understand that it comes in all shapes and sizes, it is eccentric and idiosyncratic, we discover real leadership. Leadership does not look like a person. Leadership is reflected when the two primary goals of leaders are fulfilled ; a) creating a clear vision and b) creating the ecosystem to make it happen (clarity in connecting vision to goals and goals to actions, and clearing the path). 

Here are 3 ways to recognize real leadership: 

1. Look at the team – are they going above and beyond, because they really want to?

2. Look at the outcome – is the team delivering more together than they individually ever could, in a myriad of different ways?

3. Look at their future trajectory – is the team future focused and clear about their part in getting there?

The next time you are in a conversation about leadership, and someone goes on and on about the leader and their traits – just say, So? What is the impact? And you might’ve opened yet another mind…

Are you in?

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com


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