Why be a leader?

2011 Thought Leaders in Brand Management Conference

Gotta follow Umair Haque on Twitter… He posts a heck of a lot but theres some real gems. One such gem was his piece for Havard Business Review titledHow and Why to Be a Leader (Not a Wannabe)

Leadership — true leadership —is a lost art. Leaders lead us not to a place — but to a different kind of destination: to our better, truer selves. It is an act of love in the face of an uncertain world. Perhaps, then, that’s why there’s so little leadership around: because we’re afraid to even say the word love — let alone to feel it, weigh it, measure it, allow it, admit it, believe it, and so be transformed by it.

Sounds fantastic… And I can almost feel my heart pounding. Umair then goes on to outline six ways to be a real leader… I won’t spoil it so here’s the top 3 which got me thinking

Conform — or rebel? Are you breaking the rules or following them? The rules are there for a reason: to stifle deviation, preserve the status quo, and bring the outliers right back down to the average. That’s a wonderful idea if you’re running a factory churning out widgets — but it’s a terrible notion if you’re trying to do anything else. And so leaders must shatter the status quo by breaking the rules, leading by example,= so that followers know the rules not just can, but must be broken. If you’re nail-bitingly following the rules, here’s the score: you’re not a true leader.

Talking my language, break the rules but cleverly. I’m all about the outliers and shattering the status quo. Been using the term “change the world or go home” a lot more around work. The status quo is so seductive and I see people around me wishing for things to be as they use to be alot more.

Someone asked the question the other day if things are better now or a while ago? Without a doubt its better now and it will get better still. This of course ties directly into the next point, vision or the truth…

Vision — or truth? The wannabe sets a vision. With grandiloquent gesture and magnificent panorama, the vision glitters. The leader has a harder task: to tell the truth, as plain as day, as obvious as dawn, as sure as sunrise, as inescapable as midnight. Vision is nice, and many think that a Grand Vision is what inspires people. They’re wrong. If you really want to inspire people, tell them the truth: there’s nothing that sets people free like the truth. The leader tells the truth because his fundamental task is that of elevation: to bring forth in people their better selves. And while we can climb towards a Grand Vision, it’s also true that the very act of perpetually climbing may be what imprisons us in lives we don’t really want (hi, Madison Ave, Wall St, and Silicon Valley). Truth is what elevates us; what opens us up to possibility; what produces in us the sense that we must become who were meant to be if we are to live worthy lives — and one of the surest tests of whether you’re a true leader is whether you’re merely (yawn, shrug, eyeroll) slickly selling a Grand Vision, or, instead, helping bring people a little closer to the truth. And if you have to ask what “truth” is (newsflash: climate change is real, the global economy is still borked, greed isn’t good, bankers shouldn’t earn a billion times what teachers do, CEOs shouldn’t get private jets for life for running companies into the ground, the sky really is blue) — guess what? You’re definitely not a leader.

This one really brings things home for me. Vision is important but the truth is much more important. We’re not kids, protecting us from the truth in the end. As Haque says, tell us the truth and in time we’ll respect you for it. I specially love the newsflash at the end.

Archery — or architecture? Wannabes are something like metric-maximizing robots. Given a set of numbers they must “hit,” they beaver away trying to hit them. The leader knows their job is very different: not merely to maximize existing metrics, which are often part of the problem (hi, GDP, shareholder value), but to reimagine them. The leader’s job is, fundamentally, not merely to “hit a target” — but to redesign the playing field. It’s architecture, not mere archery. If you’re hitting a target, you’re not a leader. You’re just another performer, in an increasingly meaningless game.

Metric-maximizing robots! Indeed… Its not about hitting those targets, its about redesigning the playing field. A true leader will change the world by changing the nature, landscape or architecture. I remember when Google talked about changing the patent process then they bought Motorola mobile and they shut up about that. Shame! Could have been a leader, but instead opted for the same goals as all the others.

I would conclude that having a business model which relies on year on year profit growth is maybe the constraining element, but were talking about leadership not business. If your treating both like the same, maybe your a wannabe and not really a worthy leader?

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.