“If you are nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it”: 3 cardinal tests for anyone who calls himself a Leader
If there was a tax on using (or mis-using it will be more like it) the word “Leader”, many of us will be paying through our noses.
Either we have declared ourselves as some sort of leaders or joined as followers of someone we call a leader.
In organizations, a leader typically is a person who talks strategy for a living, inspires people, lives (and often creates) ambiguity, and yes.. breathes innovation instead of air.
I am not sure if those are even real measures of leadership, let alone have all of those qualities in one person.
It is true that we rhetorically talk about leaders rising from failure, etc.
But the truth is, largely we are both intolerant and impatient towards failure.
Hence, it is often an individual’s character that goes into the making of a leader even within organizations, because when you are failing, the organization will rarely support you.
The failure gets applauded only after you are successful, or dead.
Most of us are afraid not so much of the failure, but more the loss of face.
And therefore, there are only a few true leaders.
I am big fan of Avengers. One of my most favorite characters is Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man.
I did not like him much in the initial Iron Man movies. He was just a cocky, brainy, rich, powerful, successful guy. Just the kind of people who are our role models in the corporate world. We also make the mistake of calling them leaders. A mistake.
Cocky, brainy, rich, powerful, successful may be desirable qualities. But it is surely not the same as being a leader
I must say my feelings towards Iron Man has changed over the last few movies. And that’s because Iron Man himself seems to be changing as a person. I think he might just be turning into a true leader.
Which brings me to the:
3 cardinal tests for anyone who dares to call himself a leader
#1) True leaders evolve, often out of their own demons
If words and phrases could be damned, “years of experience” can be charged for being the most useless and mis-representative term. It means nothing. World is full of people who have gone by life, hardly learning anything, changing their ways, building any real perspective or wisdom.
Experience means nothing, until it changes something in you
Good leaders change. Even more they evolve.
They probably are born with some spark of greatness, but they have to dust off their own selfishness, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, fear along the way.
If you look closely into the stories of many leaders, their journey started with something very personal.
An insult, poverty, suffering, something. Something personal.
But in due time, leaders transcend from a personal goal to a purpose that impacts lives of many more people.
Tony Stark pretty much lived inside his own head, and for himself as this I-will-do-anything-I-want billionaire, in the initial Iron Man days. Until his experiences forced him to look at things differently, and he evolves to a bigger role.
Everyone has life-changing experiences.
Only few allow the experiences to change their lives.
When I look at organizational leaders, their story interests me. The journey, the evolution. Without that, there cannot be a leader.
The journey is not just about how many millions you made, how many projects you successfully led, how the stock price went up. Those qualify you to be that cocky, brainy, rich, successful person.
To be a leader, there has to be an evolution in how your worldview has changed over time.
#2) True leaders surround themselves with other (real) leaders
This one really separates the men from the boys, metaphorically speaking.
Fake leaders master the art of creating sheeps-inside-wolfskin; the “yes-bosses” pretending to be mini-leaders in the teams of fake leaders.
There is a reason for this behavior. Fake leaders can’t tolerate criticism, cannot handle disagreement and are completely allergic to “no”.
Most importantly, they don’t want to be toppled from their position. So they are insecure.
Real leaders have both (a) preference (b) nose for other leaders. They seek out leaders and develop them.
But the problem about working with others of your kind is that they think like you. They have their strengths, they have their views, and they like to bring it to the table.
Working with equals is not always easy. But it is often necessary to achieve something significant.
Let us face it. Even leaders are human beings. Having someone always say yes to you, is comforting to the ego. Having people who will challenge you as equals can be very discomforting.
But being able to choose between what is right over what is easy, is the mark of a real leader.
And the choice of surrounding oneself with more leaders than followers is the choice between right and easy.
#3) True leaders opt for intermittent periods of isolation and anonymity
This might seem a little unusual but it is not.
We live in the information age, and our image of a leader is one who is always in the news, giving speeches, perspectives, doing the “inspiring people” kind of thing.
But real leaders may prefer to have periods of relative anonymity and isolation every once in a while.
The reason is real leaders bring something of their own, something of value to the table.
It could be technical expertise, strategic expertise, new ideas, whatever. But this is the real stuff. It is not the emperor’s clothes that the fake leader brings to the meeting, worse steals it from one his subordinates.
I don’t know who came up with the idea that your functional expertise matters very less as you rise to the top, but there are a lot of people queuing up to buy that curtain behind which they hide their incompetence.
Real leaders also need to know real strategy, vision, cross-function. ‘Also’ is the key word and so is ‘real’.
And for that leaders have to invest time in thinking, time away from the crowd.
Fake leaders pretend to be ‘so busy’, and publicly so, all the time.
Largely, using this strategy they hide their incompetence to build any real competence.
Iron Man, when off-duty from his leadership role at Avengers, spends time in his research.
Finally, it is easy to put up a facade of being a leader behind the corporate titles of presidents, directors, etc.
But “leadership” is more a verb, than noun.
Tony Stark is taking on the role of a coach for the novice Spider-man with his new found spidey skills, in an upcoming movie.
Having goofed up with something big time, Spiderman tells Tony Stark that he is nothing without his (Spiderman) suit.
Tony replies saying, “if you are nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it”.
Titles and designations are like those superhero suits. They are mere tools.
It is a leader who gives identity to the suit;
It is never the suit that makes a leader.
Atleast, not a real leader.
To connect with Swati and read her other blogs, use this link to Medium blogspot.
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