With all the political turmoil at present, and with the Labour party rebelling against Jeremy Corbyn saying he’s not a leader largely because he was not sufficiently vocal within the Remain campaign, it seems like a good time to look a little closer at what exactly leadership is.
Many descriptions of leadership are both confused and unclear. Too often, being in a managerial or executive position is conflated with being a leader. Leadership is not the same as management. Management is about tasks, where leadership is about people. A person cannot be a leader without followers. That’s what ‘leading’ crucially implies: that wherever it is you’re heading, there are other people going with you. But a leader doesn’t simply recruit followers to tail him wherever he goes, like some creepy Pied Piper. A leader also leads a movement, a community with a shared purpose. Fundamentally, leaders lead people for a purpose.
When we think about leaders, we often think about ‘charisma’. How can one person motivate others to join her cause and follow her? Well, through magnetism of personality. Through being a larger-than-life inspirational speaker. Through providing a vocal beacon that other people can follow…or so we commonly assume.
However, Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, recounts his research into what enables a good company to make the transition into a great one and includes an illuminating section on leadership. He concludes that larger-than-life ‘rock star’ leaders actually do not enable a company to make a sustainable transition to greatness. Trading on their force of personality, these individuals build a framework Collins calls ‘the genius with a thousand helpers’ - other people are there to facilitate the leader’s brilliance, but no-one who might challenge the leader’s ‘genius’ is given any real power. The company may show signs of success during the ‘rock star’ tenure, but when they leave, the company typically falls apart.
Truly great companies have what Collins calls ‘Level 5 leaders.’ This bland title is deliberate to avoid assuming too much about these people. Level 5 leaders are not showy; they’re often quiet, always humble, and they manage to take their ego out of the picture. Level 5 leaders have an intense focus on the success of the organisation, and very little focus on their personal success, often eschewing the spotlight altogether. The key part of what makes Level 5 leaders great is that they build for the future. By not focusing on themselves, they work to craft systems and structures that allow the company to flourish without them. They make sure that greatness is sustainable, rather than dependent on them. They put the cause first.
My favourite metaphor for leadership comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Gladwell explains how plane crashes occur – typically as the result of not one but seven human errors. In one of his real-life stories, we hear from a flight recorder of a crashed plane that two junior flight team members knew their plane was at risk but only expressed their concerns mildly because their boss, the captain, was flying the plane and they were too scared to challenge him.
Gladwell’s research shows that planes are safer when the least experienced member of the flight team is flying. More experienced team members are less afraid to speak up and offer suggestions and corrections to the person piloting the plane, so more errors are caught rather than contributing to a fatal chain of seven. To achieve the best results, the captain literally has to take a backseat and allow the less experienced people to fly the plane. If that isn’t a great metaphor for leadership, I don’t know what is. The best ‘captain’ is one who encourages others to try, who provides guidance, and helps others develop their skills as part of a team. True leadership requires the strength to abandon yourself to the skills and ideas of others, rather than filling the spotlight yourself.
True leadership is both hard and rare. When you are the most experienced person on board, it is hard to take a back seat and let others fly the plane. You could probably fly the plane better than anyone else. It is hard to watch others make mistakes that you would not have made, especially when there are potentially disastrous consequences resting on such mistakes.
But leadership is not about a single flight. It is about building a team and a movement, capable of flying people safely around the world for years to come. The most common flaw of people in leadership positions is probably not asking for help – or not accepting sufficient help from others. It is trying to do too much oneself. It is trying to fly every single plane, instead of investing in developing future pilots. The only way to lead a movement is to invest in building other people. The very heart of leadership is making it possible for others to contribute, grow, and lead. A true leader builds future leaders because whatever team or movement he or she is leading needs to sustain momentum after the original leader has gone.
So if true leadership isn’t about being a larger-than-life, charismatic beacon, but it is fundamentally about people, how does that work? It is difficult if not impossible to boil leadership down to a complete list of qualities, so rather than even trying to do that, I want to highlight two essential qualities of leadership: emotional intelligence and courage.
In their Harvard Business Review article 'Why should anyone be led by you?', authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones describe four unexpected qualities they have found to be common to all truly great leaders:
All of these qualities are about emotional intelligence – making oneself vulnerable, using intuition, employing empathy, revealing one’s idiosyncrasies. Leadership has a significant and necessary emotional component because leadership fundamentally involves building trust. The only sustainable way people will follow you is if they trust you. (You can use fear or money to get people to follow you, but these are both short-term measures. Unless you keep upping the fear or the money, they will soon abandon you.) Conversely, the only way you, as a leader, will yield control of the aircraft to others is if you can allow yourself to trust them.
Generating trust and trusting others are significant emotional skills, but they are things we commonly overlook when considering leaders. We think leaders need to be larger-than-life and invulnerable, but showing some vulnerability makes you approachable and helps people connect with you. We think leaders need to have a master plan, but relying heavily on intuition allows leaders to respond to the needs of the people who make up the movement, and that becomes a driving factor. Emotional intelligence is essential for leadership.
As for courage, leadership is often presented as glamorous because of the elevated status suggested by having ‘followers.’ Yet a rarely-spoken-about fact of leadership is that it is deeply uncomfortable. When you’re leading, you’re the person out in front of the others, walking into the unknown. You’ll be the one to get hit first with the dangers and pitfalls that are out there. Leadership requires the courage to walk into the darkness, not knowing what’s going to befall you. As Seth Godin writes in Tribes: We need you to lead us, “It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to resist the idea to settle. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, you’re not reaching your potential.”
Leadership is about being the first person to step into the unknown. It is this fact, rather than charisma, that encourages people to follow you. It’s putting your money where your mouth is, modelling the behaviour you want to see in others. Courage and emotional intelligence go hand-in-hand, because once you’ve taken that first step into the unknown, you need to work with others to help them overcome their fears and take that next step with you. This is the process through which movements are built and the world is shaped into something better for all of us.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Leadership’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Tuesday 1 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Dr Andrew Crosbie