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Not Leadership “Material”

Published: August 22, 2018

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Sound familiar?

We need our people to be brave! We need leaders, not followers! I’m sick of people asking for permission to solve problems! I’m not sure if they’re leadership material! They need to take the ball and run with it! Show some initiative!I hear this kind of stuff all the time — often when the situation is at its most chaotic, and difficult to navigate. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders push organizations to the edge of chaos, and then expect people to magically “step up”. When they do, it is the brazen self-promoters who “shine” (and get promoted), while meanwhile the more thoughtful and deliberate folks — trying to advocate for a sustainable path forward, without stepping on people’s toes — are left branded as timid followers unwilling to embrace the leadership “quest”. And the story repeats.

We talk about the “Art” of leadership, and intangible traits (“they’ve got ….It”). Airport book stores are bursting with leadership books. But there’s something kind of Willy Wonka about the whole thing…and I can’t put my finger on it.

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While on a plane recently, I learned about the president of a public university who had managed to lead for decades. The two professors in front of me told story after story about President’s humble and supportive approach. He lead by example with “heart, fairness, demonstrable impact, and real vision”. He knew hundreds of people by name, and these traveling professors credited him for helping them grow their own personal leadership abilities and careers. During a grim tragedy, President pulled the community of tens of thousands together.

It reminded me of this video of David Marquet’s Greatness talk:

In short, it feels like “true leadership” is simultaneously accessible/achievable, and impactful…not a Simon Sinek infused Hunger Games soap opera (translation…leaders rattle on about “the why” and then eat each other alive with dramatic flare). Popular leadership literature, even at its most humble, still feels so self-aggrandizing…heavy on the leader’s heavy toil, the noble responsibility, the soup-stirring, and the platitudes. It feels like royalty extolling on the preciousness of royalty.

It’s exclusionary leadership…not inclusionary leadership.

I guess I’m wondering: perhaps true leadership is humbly helping a coherent, consistent, safe, and fruitful system emerge — a system where mere mortals can navigate the system and thrive without unnecessary chaos and acrobatics. Where everyone can discover the leader they’d like to be…not what org dysfunction dictates.