I was recently invited to interview for a non-executive board position of a leadership program at a prestigious US university. Preparing for the interview gave me pause to consider my thoughts on this matter. What exactly constitutes leadership? And more importantly, what attributes sustain leadership over time?
Suffice it to say, my views are simply just my opinion derived from my own experiences both personally and professionally on a micro level and my broad observations on a macro, global level. Like everything else in my life, these views are not static; they are not from a textbook, a classroom, or a business self-help book.
They are from direct experience, both positive and negative, AND they are in a constant state of flux, ever-evolving and changing, as am I. First and foremost, do you think you are a leader? If so, you may possess many qualities that a true leader must possess or learn and integrate, but you may be missing or lacking other attributes which are essential to the whole. Leadership is also earned; it is not usurped, grabbed, or taken. There is something profoundly Spiritual and enduring concerning the true essence of leadership. The mantle of power is only given to (not sought by) those who can wield the sword, with the recognition that the sword is ALWAYS double-edged. Every individual in a leadership position must keep this awareness front and center and lead with this knowledge and understanding.
So, what are the key attributes of leadership? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but encapsulates the core essentials on the understanding that there are also variables in each of us, which makes every true leader unique unto themselves.
No matter how small their circle of influence, every leader has a vision, an idea of a better way of life, a better way of doing things, and a better product or service that benefits the community. But this vision must first recognize and accept what is, then build on this with a set of mutable strategic imperatives which gradually move the organization toward that vision of what will be. The acceptance of what is keeps the vision grounded and manifest in reality. But any vision must have substance. It must possess real inspiration and not just pay lip- service to it. Why?
Simply put, we have entered an era of rapid change where the key watchwords of the day in business and society are DISRUPTORS and INFLUENCERS. Without substance, disruptors simply tear down the old guard, hang out their shingle before the next wave of disruptors breaks on their shoreline defenses. There is nothing enduring here. There is no benefit or contribution to society, no legacy or intention to leave the world a better place than they found it. It is simply a process of riding the next wave of wokeness until your time runs out and someone else destroys your sandcastle and builds their own.
The term Influencer is probably the most banal, vacuous term yet invented in the English language. It requires its title holder to do anything of any substance, to leave behind anything of value. At its most vacuous, it is popularity for the sake of popularity—the sum total of more likes on an Instagram or Facebook page than the next person.
Vision, in my opinion, speaks to an ideal. As much as it benefits the visionary, it must benefit society as a whole or those who are impacted by the vision depending on the leader’s circle of influence. And more importantly, anyone who claims to be a visionary or have a vision must think long thoughts. They must understand the power of the double-edged sword they wield and actively and constantly strive to mitigate the negative impact of what they do.
Every leader is by nature motivating others within an organization to work toward fulfilling their vision. Think about this carefully for a moment. It doesn’t just NEED careful consideration; it DEMANDS careful consideration. As a leader, you motivate and organize a business and its employees to act on your behalf. Pay aside, you are essentially asking someone to do your dirty work if that is what is required to fulfill the corporate vision. In effect, as the leader of an organization, the author of the vision, you are the parent asking your children to behave in a particular manner. To act on your behalf. They are your charges, and how they grow up and, in turn, become leaders or how they remain followers of your vision is your responsibility. That is the mantle of power that rests solely and firmly on your head as a leader. Shakespeare could not have said it better in his HENRY IV, Part II: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” And it should because if you’re not uneasy, you’re not sufficiently aware of the double-edged sword you wield.
Whenever leadership falls from grace or, more realistically, never cultivated grace in the first place, it is from a lack of integrity. It is often the missing link, the missing attribute between a leader who uses their leadership skills to exploit and those who wish to contribute to humanity. Profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive. The fixation on the stock price as the singular most important value within an organization has led us to the current economic and environmental imbalance in which we now, collectively, find ourselves.
Organizations and their leaders, including politicians and celebrities who hide behind public relations campaigns while behaving duplicitously behind closed doors, have no integrity. In truth, their “vision” is nothing more than a personal objective. It should not be called a vision. These people are not true leaders. It is a wholly inappropriate title for these so-called leaders, disruptors, and influencers.
The adage “as above, so below” also applies to “as within, so outwith.” In other words, the inner motivation and the outer action must match. They must be seamless or at least strive to find the balance where they mirror each other. When they oppose each other, it’s called hypocrisy.
People tend to give their power away to leaders, and the wrong type of leaders readily accept that power from those people. Any leader worth their salt will never allow anyone within their circle of influence to give them this power.
Tyrants are created this way. Many leaders portray themselves as humble, but this is often false humility. One sees this a great deal with spiritual teachers.
They project a sense of humility in public and behave as abusive tyrants behind closed doors. Equally, leadership is not about self-aggrandizement, which is as damaging to leadership as is false humility. Put anyone on a pedestal, and eventually, you will become disappointed and disillusioned. A wise friend once said, “the degree to which you seek approval is the degree to which you will be manipulated.” Wise words indeed!
A Samurai sword is tempered over and over again and forged in a fire. First, softening the metal, hammering it into shape, then plunging it into cold water to harden and hold the shape in place. This is done layer-after-layer before finally polishing, sharpening, and finishing the blade.
A true leader evolves through this same process. They must recognize that they embody both the teacher and student role in equal measure. They are the blacksmith and the sword, as one. They are not, in fact, teaching anything but forging and tempering themselves and leading only by example. As soon as they believe they are solely the blacksmith (teacher) and everyone else is the sword (student), they hammer into shape; they have nothing left to learn or teach and are lost to their ego. Growth instantly ceases, either temporarily or, in some cases, permanently. They are energetically stripped of their leadership title, even if they still hold that title within the corporation. They simply become individuals pursuing a personal objective and paying others to execute that strategy – a pretender in a leadership role.
The difference between a true leader and a disruptor or influencer is this: a true leader recognizes that they are the guardian of a vision, a torch lighting the way to an ideal – a bridge between two worlds. They recognize there is One Light and many lanterns, and they are but a lantern, not the Light. They also acknowledge that they cannot complete this themselves, that at some point, they will need to pass the torch onto the next leader coming up through the ranks. They may not even know this person, but they are the one(s) who will carry forth and evolve that vision for the benefit and betterment of all who exist within their circle of influence. They do not seek power for the sake of power but readily relinquish it when the time comes. It is the opposite of a dynasty that seeks to hold onto power generation after generation and the opposite of a disruptor or influencer who attempts to fulfill their objectives for themselves within their lifetime.
In summary, and in my opinion, true leadership holds a vision, an inspiration toward a better world. Anything else is simply fulfilling a personal objective. It is not leadership.