We’ve spent decades trying to figure out leadership. Is it genetic? Is it just charisma? Can you learn it? Studies and anecdotes traditionally focus on the leader’s qualities, but little time is spent understanding who the team are and what they wanted or needed at that time. This has never been more clear than the recent US election, where we delved endlessly into the qualities of both leaders rather than focusing on the desires of those who were being led.
It doesn’t take much digging to uncover that the people we consider to be the world’s great leaders have very few of the ‘right’ qualities for leadership as we perceive them today.
How do you reconcile the notion of great leaders never micro-managing their people when it’s known Steve Jobs was a tyrannical micro-manager?
If you read into the full history of Nelson Mandela’s story you’ll find he wasn’t always the accepting peacemonger you think he is.
How do you claim that all great leaders are inclusive and empathetic when just before going to war with the Nazis, Winston Churchill said this:
“I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place.”
Revisionist history is easy, of course, but the lesson is clear. There are no linear qualities that can define who is considered a leader. What is undoubtedly true in any example I’ve come across is that leaders become what their teams need them to be at that time. Leadership is a sliding scale that includes equal parts whip and carrot.
A leader’s unique understanding of the sliding scale — when to apply whip, and when to feed carrot — is what gains enrollment from the team. This acceptance of a leader can be fleeting, but it’s owed to a common belief that the leader can serve their current plight. This is why some leaders are monumental successes while leading one team, and catastrophic failures leading another. It’s beyond skills and qualities, it’s about understanding the team deeply.
Because we haven’t invested any time studying teams, we don’t understand this dynamic properly. It’s what I see as being the greatest oversight in the entire discipline of leadership philosophy.