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Leadership: Can You Master It?

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Michaelangelo’s masterpiece – the Sistine Chapel, Rome

Great leadership is fine art, not painting by numbers.

During a recent conversation, I asked one of my closest colleagues, an outstanding leader:  “Do you know the secret of great leadership?”  His response was an excellent one, “Humility?”  I said, “No, that’s important but not it. It’s the willingness to work with people better than you and not feel threatened by them”.

One could argue that such willingness stems from humility. This blog explains what humility really means in the context of strong leadership, and what it means to lead people who are “better than you.”

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 – strong, though not the way most people think, selfless, empowering, and yes, humble. They are more besides because great leadership is fine art, not painting by numbers. Every leader is different, and mastering leadership takes a lifetime of learning. Hopefully each piece of art you produce is better than the one before – richer in meaning, a reflection of your unique personality, unfolding experiences and insights. After all Michaelangelo was not Van Gogh, who was not Picasso.

Masterpieces of art are rare and invaluable.  Likewise, how many great leaders can you think of, either in public life or whom you know personally? Not enough, most people would say. Too many leaders in all walks of life are obviously flawed, so much so that we may question whether they are fit to be there. However, no leader comes remotely close to perfection 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 as a peasant farmer who would never amount to anything. 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, willful and reckless. His House of Commons speeches were often nowhere near as assured as the scores of witty quotes attributed to him would suggest – in fact they could be rambling and confused. Throughout his life his so-called ‘black dog’ of depression stalked him. 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!

This is a big subject, but here are the practical takeaways:

  • The widespread predilection for ‘strong’ leaders – charismatic figures with big egos who tend to impose their unquestionable personal convictions on others – is simply a childlike urge for a parental figure who can offer protection and (apparently) remove the cancer of uncertainty, and with it the responsibility to think for ourselves. It is generally unrealistic, irresponsible, and often deeply dangerous – an emotional and intellectual cop-out. People who think this way are courting disaster and frankly deserve it. 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. History and personal experience (certainly in my case) teach us that ‘strong’ leaders are invariably bad news. Most of them eventually self-destruct and sadly they usually damage or sink other people en route.
  • Real humility is borne of quiet self-assurance. It comes from having discovered what others value you for and feeling good about it, good enough to accept your own weaknesses (which are many), recognize where other people can outperform you, encourage them to do so, and take genuine pleasure in their achievements. 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, even if this means someone else gets the plaudits. 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’. They reject hubris and hyperbole and let their actions speak instead. They channel their egos and energies into the success of the collective enterprise and they think big on behalf of everyone else, sometimes very big. Jim Collins’ outstanding 5 year research program “Good to Great” (2001) contains various inspirational case studies. My favorite is probably Darwin Smith, who became CEO of Kimberly Clark when it was just a mediocre regional paper mill company in Wisconsin USA, going nowhere. 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, its be-all-and-end-all, and pitch it into battle as David versus Goliath – Proctor & Gamble. People were incredulous – it was like deliberately sinking your boat in the middle of the ocean and setting off on a flimsy raft to paddle thousands of miles to safety. Collins says one commentator described it as “the gutsiest move he’d ever seen in business” but most people thought it was suicidal. 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 organizations. 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.

About Mark Ashton

Mark Ashton is a UK business leader, developer, entrepreneur and consultant whose passion is starting, growing or restoring great businesses that outstrip customers' expectations. His leadership mettle and die-in-a-ditch, selfless business principles were first forged in the early-1990s in the US, where in 4 years he led 250% growth of a 2 year old textile machinery sales and service company against a backdrop of industry decline and fierce, entrenched competition. Since then he has led and advised on start-ups, turnarounds, and growth, strategy, improved business metrics and customer-driven Lean (continuous improvement) projects in SMEs, mid-sized and large corporates, in widely differing industries. He brings strategic insight, courage, honesty, common sense and motivational skills to help businesses survive, avoid pitfalls and grow sustainably. Over the next 5 years he and his close-knit team of C-level experts intend to build a hands-on, long-term investor company that will apply tried and tested, winning principles of enduring Top 1% businesses to create exceptional shareholder value. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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  • haykantonyan

    One of the greatest articles I have ever read. Great many thanks!!!

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