What Is Leadership?

Keep Calm and Read this Blog

I just finished binging on a podcast called S-Town. It’s a seven-part series about a town in Alabama and one interesting man at the center of the story. But it’s about so much more. Listening to this complex, twisting story reminded me of the complexity of great leaders I’ve known. They’re just like great stories.

For example, our first customer was the head of sales at a small software company in Silicon Valley called ASK Computers. We launched our first pre-podcast era “talk radio” with him. What stood out was how he approached the process. The conversation. The outcome. It was interesting. Thick. Complex. Yet simple in its effectiveness.

Like S-Town, he had a task to accomplish. Tell a great story. In his case, explain what sales success looks like. Product information. Recognition. Corporate strategy. Normal corporate stuff. But his talk radios were far from normal. They included references to literature, great thinkers, psychology, politics, the complexities of life. He brought a richness to the story. A depth that made you think, want to know more. He brought himself.

Among the leaders we work with, the great ones bring this mix to their role. Rarely do they just do their job well. That’s expected. They bring a perspective. An approach. A challenging context. A history. A personality. They are vulnerable and controlled. Weak and strong. Complex and simple. They are a great story. It’s one of the reasons people follow. They are interesting. Challenging. Even scary at times.

Which feeds into the age old debate. Are leaders born or developed? Like most existential questions, it’s both. And it’s all the greys in between. So with that, here is my simple yet complex description of a leader, the basic skills needed, and some good thought leaders to follow.

Basic Truths

  • Managers aren’t leaders. Leaders can be managers. But leaders break things. Managers make them operational and rhythmic.
  • Bureaucrats aren’t leaders. Leaders can be bureaucratic if related to the product and customer needs.
  • Leaders have followers. Not only employees who report to them. Followers unrelated to title and position.
  • Leaders push boundaries. Scare people. Don’t settle.
  • Leaders understand complexity but operate simply. They define the goals, mission, objectives in easy to understand terms and metaphors.
  • Leaders focus the team on the possible while challenging them to dream the impossible.

Basic Skills

  • Know yourself. What drives you. Why you do what you do. Why it matters. The who, what, and why of you.
  • Learn to listen. Great questions start with great listening. Focus on facts, insights. Cut through the emotion or personal agendas of yourself and your team. Be non-judgmental in your listening. Lean on the interrogatives of “who, what, where, when, how, why.” Note that why is last.
  • Communicate clearly. Learn to think through your ideas and expectations. Learn to frame a problem and an ideal outcome without dictating how to get there. Unless you must.
  • Invest in training: active listening, smart questions, negotiation, feedback, and presentation skills. You can and should hire anyone who supplements your strengths. But communication has to be owned by you and you alone. Learn to communicate clearly and well.
  • Develop team voice. Give them permission to challenge you, push you, inform you. Do this through actions versus words. Live this in real time.
  • Learn to give and take feedback. Make sure when you give feedback, it’s about the other person and not to feed your ego or ease your frustration.
  • Understand every person needs something. Find out what it is and help them get there. You serve your team not the other way around.
  • And finally, own the “why” and the vision of every goal, objective, outcome, and dream. Repeat it often in different words, analogies, and metaphors. You own the vision and repeatedly answering “why” is essential.

Basic Resources

For Leadership

Simon Sinek: Watch his videos, read his books. Particularly two, Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last.

Indra Nooyi: Listen to her interviews and her concept of “performance with purpose.”

Geoffrey Moore: Watch his recent videos, but read Crossing the Chasm.

For Context

Thomas Friedman: Subscribe to anything he writes but read The World Is Flat.

Fareed Zakaria: Watch him on CNN, subscribe to his writing, and read The Post-American World.

For Foundation

Jonathan Haidt: Watch his videos and read The Righteous Mind.

Sheryl Sandberg: Read her latest book, Option B.

Daniel Kahneman: Read Thinking, Fast and Slow.

And finally…

I once heard a quote by Andy Grove, founder and past CEO of Intel. I can’t find it now. But I’m not one to let a fact get in the way of a good truth. As I heard it, Andy Grove said “I had to forget everything that got me here.” He was talking about becoming CEO and leader of one of the world’s largest tech companies. His point was the skills that got him to the position of CEO needed to be adjusted if he was going to be successful. I took this to mean the skills and capabilities that got him to climb the corporate ladder were of little use once he reached the top.

Experienced leaders understand this. They know that being a good manager, bureaucrat, or even an expert in your field, won’t make you a great leader. It takes a different focus. Self reflection. A combination of personal depth and simplicity. Like a good story. Oh. And yes, please listen to S-Town. You’ll hear what I mean or if not, you’ll enjoy it.