We love to complicate leadership in countless books, articles, and insights, but there is no formula. However, there is this gem that guides all great leaders.
If the rift in popular sentiment around political leadership tells us anything, it’s that we still value leaders, especially great ones. It is human nature to want someone at the helm to whom we can entrust the hardest decisions, even if we may vehemently disagree with him or her on them.
It’s not different in any field of human endeavor. From the Whitehouse to the boardroom to the playing field, we seek out the qualities that earn a person the mantle of leader.
It’s no surprise that so much is written about leadership. This month alone I’ve counted 24 articles posted in Inc.com (not including this one or others posted today) that speak directly to leadership. And that’s typical. You’d think that with all of the attention paid to leadership, with all that’s written about it, and with the way that we scrutinize it as individuals and as a society, we’d have figured it out by now.
There’s a reason why we haven’t.
The late management guru and father of modern management theory, Peter Drucker, once said to me, in response to my question ” What makes a great leader?” that the only quality he could consistently point to was that great leaders had lots of followers. That’s sort of like saying that what all fast cars have in common is that they are in front of all the slower ones.
But there’s a truth to what Drucker said that we do not want to accept, because it puts the onus of being a great leader right back on each one of us. Namely, that there is no formula. Each leader has to figure out how to be exceptional in the unique set of circumstances that he or she is presented with.
“People will rarely follow you because you’re great. They follow you because you enable them to feel great about themselves.”
While there are many qualities that on the surface appear to be common among leaders, such as integrity, decisiveness, transparency, and empathy, there are many lousy leaders who have all of those qualities and just as many great leaders who seem to defy common wisdom.
So, why even try to write yet one more column about leadership when it is apparently a unique exercise in each case? Because, while there is no universal formula, there is a single unyielding goal that every great leader creates for those who surround him or her: They challenge those who follow them to be part of something greater than themselves and to achieve more than they thought they could.
And that is precisely what makes leadership a unique exercise; it is unique because the passion that drives each of us to excel is similarly unique, a mashup of a lifetime of experiences, insecurities, attitudes, and beliefs.
How to lead people can not be generalized and applied in a uniform, cookie-cutter manner because the people you are leading are not uniform and cookie-cutter. The onus is on you to understand the way those people whom you lead are driven and to then challenge them in ways to both acknowledge their strengths and stretch their limitations.
People will rarely follow you because you’re great, They follow you because you enable them to feel great about themselves.
I recall a dinner conversation with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in which I asked him about Steve Jobs’s management style. What I recall most was how Woz recounted occasions when Jobs would stick his head into a closed-door meeting where some sort of problem was being solved, take a quick pulse of the room, scan the whiteboards and flip charts, and then simply say something to the effect of “You can do better.”
Sometimes that was it, and then he’d leave the room. Crass? Perhaps. I think it’s brilliant. The most powerful four words you can utter as a leader: “You can do better.” Because when Jobs told you that you could do better, you sure as hell tried, and more often than not you did.
Toward the end of that same conversation with Drucker, I asked him, “So, what is the ultimate responsibility of the leader when it comes to those he or she is tasked with managing?” Drucker’s response has been a compass for me in how I lead in every aspect of my life, from how I interact with those I’m charged to grow professionally, to my children, and even within my interpersonal relationships. It was short, tough, and profound, “You do not manage them. You challenge them.”