Leadership has been overcomplicated over the years. I’m not going to say leadership is easy – but one thing I do know – leadership is simple, and it’s time we got back to basics. Everything you ever need to know about leadership comes down to one of two rules – both of which have been around for centuries.
To prove my point we are going to hop into our plutonium-powered De Lorean time and space machine and travel to China in the 6th Century BC to meet the legendary Lao Tzu. And as we split into billions of atoms to journey back let’s recognise we are cramming centuries of thinking into a few minutes – so one thing we can be sure of is we’ll leave a lot out!
Ancient wisdom revealed
Lao Tzu penned the good old “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” He also said “a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
In the same century Sun Tzu wrote the “Art of War” which is still on the reading list of many top executives today. He wrote “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
In the 1st Century BC, the Roman consul Cicero believed a leader could ONLY deliver results by recognising they were dependent upon others – and the total picture was much bigger than themselves. In order to lead they HAD to focus upon others.
In the 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth taught “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” His disciples likened the relationship between leaders and followers to a shepherd caring for a flock. Each one agreed leadership was not dominion, but service.
A Machiavellian mess
Then in the 16th Century the cunning Italian Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his famous book “The Prince”. He believed a leader should maintain power at all costs – by force and deceit if necessary. The leader was the focus – everything was about THEM. Not only that, he believed the leader should appear to be one thing whilst in truth being something else altogether.
And frankly we are still clearing up his mess. Because although he added brilliant insights into the perils of managing change, Machiavelli locked up rule #1 of leadership and threw away the key.
Leaping into the 19th Century we come to Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of leadership. In his view leaders were born, not made. You either had it, or you didn’t – and if you did then you would make great things happen. If you didn’t – well, tough. You were either a leader, or a follower. You were either a manager, or a worker.
In the early 20th Century, Frederick Taylor created ‘Scientific Management.’ Forget motivating people to work harder – just optimise the way their work is done. The ‘right way’ to do a job was developed and employees no longer had responsibility for the way they worked. OK, his approach improved productivity – when standing at a work station performing the same task day in and day out – but most jobs today involve anything BUT that.
Scientific management was parked by the 40s, but the massive gap Taylor created between ‘managers’ and ‘workers’ still lingers on like a bad smell. Managers decide how work is done – workers do the work. Managers have all the good ideas – workers put them into practice. Managers know the right way to do it – workers know little – or nothing.
Each of these theories unravelled more and more ancient wisdom – and between them completely turned rule #1 leadership inside out and on its head.
In search of the secret formula
“Trait theory” made things worse as experts searched for a set of specific characteristics, or traits, that made a leader successful so they could be measured and developed. But this theory lost all credibility when the only statistically significant conclusion it reached was the best leaders were slightly taller and a little more intelligent than average leaders.
As they ran out of steam in their search for the perfect leader, they turned to what leaders DID and the behavioural theory of leadership was born. Surely we could learn to COPY the best leaders to become great? This saw the birth of the ‘Celebrity Chief Exec’ – their autobiographies were used like leadership manuals. They all said something like, “if you want to be a great leader then you need to be – like ME! Think how I think, speak how I speak, behave like me, dress like me. In fact – if you want to be a great leader then what you REALLY need is a frontal lobotomy.”
Professor Richard Jolly from the London Business School calls this “The Heathrow Airport School of Leadership.” Your boss goes away and realises at the airport they have forgotten a book – so they head to the bookshop and end up in the business section clutching the latest chief exec autobiography. They devour it on the plane and come back trying to be exactly like them! And of course it never worked. So enlightened employees started buying their boss a novel before they went away!
The search for the perfect leader kept shovelling more and more stuff on top of rule #1.
So what is Rule #1?
Rule #1 is THE most important thing to recognise about leadership. It gives us the starting point for every leader: Leadership is not about YOU – it’s about THEM! Or to misquote Bill Clinton, “It’s about the people, stupid.” EVERYTHING you ever need to know about leadership starts here.
Eleanor Roosevelt put it like this “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a GREAT leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
Of course, a leader is only a leader when they have followers, so it’s tempting to create followers – but the best leaders don’t seek to create more followers, they seek to create more leaders. Because the days of the leader as the hero who can save the day, provide all the answers and solve every problem are long gone. The world in which we live is far too complicated for that. If you think it’s all about you then believe me, you are never going to inspire anyone for long.
So remember rule number 1– IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! Or as Bill might say – it’s about the people, stupid!
Author: Peter Anderton
A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.
Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.