I started a new freelancing gig at a global ad agency today. I’ve been inundated with information all day, and man alive am I knackered.
That’s normal though, what’s a little different this time is that it’s a position more senior than any I’ve done before. I’ve lead multi-million pound projects and teams with dozens of people, but in those roles the leadership was secondary to my responsibility for delivery. This time it’s all about the leadership.
When I spoke with one of the head guys from the New York office, he mentioned to me that he’d seen how laid back the English were in business compared with their New York counterparts. He observed that a New York business leader will be more blunt and more confrontational when necessary, whereas us Brits will be more subtle and circumspect.
I agreed with him, I’ve observed the same thing. Does that mean that New Yorkers are better leaders than the English?
Of course not, but he made me think about what kind of leader I am, and what kind of leader I’m not.
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” Max DePree
The traditional belief is that a good leader needs to be some kind of ‘alpha’ type – some go-getting, work-chewing, dog-eat-dog person who’s focused on getting results at all costs.
I couldn’t disagree more.
For me, being a leader involves 3 things:
1. Having a clear vision.
2. Being willing and able to take people with you on a journey.
3. Using your strengths to make things work.
If a leader does those 3 things then they’re onto something, and it’s because of that definition that I think everyone has the capability to be a leader, and many already are.
What stops a lot of leaders – or potential leaders – from applying those 3 tenets is fear, plain and simple. Fear that they’re going in the wrong direction, fear that people won’t follow or fear that they’ll fail. I think perhaps the biggest fear of any leader is that they’re not strong enough, that they don’t have the more traditional leadership traits in sufficient quantities to be effective.
It’s that fear of being weak – or to put it another way, the fear of being too much of a follower – that drives them to behave in the ways they think they ought to behave rather than using their natural leadership traits. That’s what can destroy a perfectly good leader.
Whether you have a leadership role in a startup, a leadership role as a parent , a leadership role in a social group or whether you’re leading a whole country (hello Mr Obama and Mr Brown), you’re also allowed to be a follower.
Don’t think for one second that you have to lead constantly and can’t look to others or follow others. You need to lead consistently, yes, but not constantly.
Do you think that Barack doesn’t look up to anyone or feel inspired by anyone? Do you think that Richard Branson doesn’t hear what people say or follow what’s important to him? Do you think that Hillary doesn’t look to the people she respects or listens to anyone?
Being a great leader requires openness and a willingness to go off-road and explore the unknown when necessary. That means that there has to be a balance between leading and following – leading forges your path, following helps you learn.
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy
Just look at Twitter – everyone and anyone following all kinds of people. Even the big guys are following people, and I’d say the people who really get it are perfectly happy to follow people who might be perceived to be lower down the food chain, simply because they know they can learn something from them.
Something funny happened on the way to posting this article. Just when I was putting the finishing touches to my thoughts here, I saw Penelope Trunks article about leadership in the new millennium, where she points out how important following is. “Damn it”, I thought. “Now it’ll just look like I’m following her lead.”
An interesting irony, don’cha’think?
That demonstrated my own fear about not being ‘alpha’ enough, which was also demonstrated when I was talking with the New York guy about my freelance gig. When confronted with his idea about how non-confrontational us Brits were, there was a moment where my confidence in being able to do this new role vanished, and I thought to myself “I’m not an alpha kinda guy, I’m just Steve“.
Well, that’s true. I’m not a traditional alpha kinda guy, but I know that I have a whole bunch of stuff that makes me sure I’ll be bloody good in that role, not least is my ability to adapt and learn (as my experience today is proof of).
Having the confidence to be both a leader and a follower is where the power and potential really is.