Great leadership is not “painting by numbers”
Everyone has a different idea of what makes a great leader, but in my experience most views are somewhat one-dimensional. There are two common and apparently irreconcilable camps – the “strong leader” or the “selfless, empowering leader”.
Actually, great leaders are all of the above and more, because great leadership is fine art, not painting by numbers. Every leader is different, and mastering leadership takes a lifetime of learning.
Too many leaders in all walks of life are obviously flawed and, paradoxically, this is hugely encouraging. We need to reboot our expectations.
Two of the greatest leaders in Western culture illustrate my point:
- Abraham Lincoln, by consensus America’s greatest president, came from humble origins. He endured repeated derision, humiliation and failure – business failure, and career failure in law and politics. He had a difficult marriage and his wife’s wealthy family treated him with disdain. When he finally became president he won the respect and admiration of some of his fiercest political rivals by incorporating them into his administration, and bringing out the best in them in the interests of two great causes; the ending of slavery in the United States and the country’s survival during its terrible Civil War (1861-65).
- Winston Churchill was widely seen as rude, spoilt, bombastic, wilful and reckless. The lowest point of his career, the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 for which he was widely blamed and sacked from the British Government, aged 40, hung like a millstone round his neck for 25 years. When he became Prime Minister in Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in May 1940, aged 65, many politicians saw his appointment as unfettered lunacy! Yet he inspired the British public, encouraged Britain’s allies, led a government of national unity to victory in World War II, and is a shoe-in as the greatest Briton ever.
Lincoln and Churchill served prolonged, acutely painful apprenticeships as leaders with no guarantee of eventual ‘redemption’. Both were seen as liabilities but eventually proved their detractors spectacularly mistaken and became revered by generations.
Crucially both were able to face up to brutal realities and take responsibility when it mattered. Neither of them had a compulsive need to be the ‘biggest dog in the kennel’ and both were entirely, selflessly focused on getting the job done using all the talents around them.
However they did have one major advantage – perilous, existential crises concentrate the mind wonderfully!
Here is what I think we can learn from this:
- The widespread predilection for ‘strong’ leaders – charismatic figures with big egos who tend to impose their unquestionable personal convictions on others – is generally unrealistic, an emotional and intellectual cop-out. People who think this way are courting disaster. Why? Because, like the rest of us, any leader will be error-prone, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and will only have fragments of the overall jigsaw puzzle. Most of them eventually self-destruct and sadly they usually damage or sink other people en route.
- The most effective leaders are great team players – they know what role they excel in, they stick to it, they defer to others when necessary and they work hard to help others to succeed in their respective positions for the sake of the team. In fact there is compelling evidence that the more a leader ascribes credit to others and to good fortune, the more others will highlight him or her as having been the necessary catalyst and inspiration for their success. To put it another way, the more you give the more you receive.
- The best leaders are frequently overlooked or underestimated because their ‘substance’ greatly exceeds their ‘style’. Jim Collins’ outstanding five-year research programme “Good to Great” (2001) contains the inspirational case of Darwin Smith, who became CEO of Kimberly Clark when it was just a mediocre regional paper mill company in Wisconsin USA. Collins describes Smith as the ‘nerdy in-house lawyer’, a softly spoken man whose appointment as CEO raised eyebrows – one Board member publicly questioned whether Smith was qualified for the job.
Early on, Smith made the momentous decision to sell all of Kimberly Clark’s paper mills, the entire heritage of the company, and pitch it into battle as David versus Goliath against Proctor & Gamble. People were incredulous. Although one commentator described it as “the gutsiest move he’d ever seen in business”, most people thought it was suicidal. Some 25 years later, Kimberly Clark had become the world’s leading paper-based consumer products company. Looking back after retirement Smith said simply “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job”.
Great leaders are needed in all walks of life and at all levels in organisations. Are you willing to pay the personal price, have you got the strength and humility, and will you liberate those who are ‘better than you’ to be exceptional? The rewards are extraordinary, though they aren’t always the ones people expect or even demand.