Most of us come across a word like ‘leadership’ and immediately assume it describes a politician, a rock-star, or a CEO. Someone important, dignified, and accomplished, but not us. At least, that’s what I do. After all, a true leader is some superhuman who knows exactly what to do and when to do it, and never says anything stupid (George Bush notwithstanding), right? It’s not my mom or the guy who sells coconuts down the street…
Of course, we all know that’s nonsense (or at least I hope we do). True leaders, people who inspire us to greatness, come in all shapes and sizes. Yet we are still prone to set the standard for leadership at some wildly imagined level of omnipotence and perfection. But what if we threw out the scorecard and looked instead to a list of “leaders greatest ego-hits”? What wisdom would we gather from the mistakes, about-faces, and surprises they have encountered? Turns out, they may well be more instructive than we thought.
Here is what I’ve learned:
1. It’s ok to change my mind.
There is nothing more frustrating than a person in power who refuses to let go of a failed plan (think of Nixon in the Vietnam war). And, nothing quite so compelling as a leader humbly admitting they were wrong (think Robert McNamara’s apology for that same war). It seems to raise us all up a notch on the human spectrum of tolerance, honesty, and forgiveness. You can almost feel a collective exhale. Who likes perfect people anyway?
2. Taking my hands off the controls is wild, but worth it.
Trusting your intuition and, in turn, being led by something much greater than yourself — your cause, your God, or the people you aim to serve, takes courage of a particular, and often unrecognized, sort. But as the biographers of Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, and pretty much every mom out there will tell you: relying on inner listening in a time of upheaval can lead to great empires of innovation and love, even if it puts you in the doghouse for a while. I know my gut has saved my butt more times than I can count, but only if I have had the patience to bear it out.
3. Context is the true King.
Einstein told us that he “stood on the shoulders of giants”, and the Dalai Lama reminds us he is the 113th incarnation. Both are leaders who understood their place in history. CEOs defer to their teams and praise their mentors because they know that pure self-reliance is suicide, and a masquerade for ego, micro-management and the gradual disempowerment of the people around them. Setting yourself among, rather than above, the people you aim to lead allows you to see through a multi-colored lens and spare yourself the tyranny of a single perspective. The bonus? It saves from the cannibalizing effect of over-responsibility.
4. Best accept my flawed authority so it doesn’t inhibit my gifts.
If Martin Luther King had been derailed by his womanizing ways, or Mahatma Gandhi by the fact that he was often cruel to his wife, where would nonviolence be today? This does not absolve us of our faults, of course, but reminds us that we are not the sum total of our worst acts. So, we should all get down to the business of getting over ourselves. It’s my work, not myself, that I should take seriously.
5. Know when it’s time to take a bow.
We cringe when rock legends let it go a little too long and produce that embarrassing, critically defiled album with acrimony written all over it. Leaders risk the same if they don’t recognize when their leadership is no longer required. A psychologist who worked with many high-level managers once told me that many people she treated were suffering from a classic leadership dilemma; they did not understand that the people who start projects are not always the people who are meant to finish them. Taking a bow is not easy, especially if the project or purpose is dear to your heart.
So back to the original question: Who leads?
The question might be moot. We are all called to lead on some level. The real question is the degree of humility, inspiration, and discernment we bring to the act. Therein lies the power. What I have learned from the humanity of inspired leaders is that if I listen deeply to my life, know myself well, change my mind when I need to, and let go from time to time, my scorecard often looks a lot more like theirs. In the end, I’ve learned that leading looks more like being led.