Leadership basics I wish I had learned earlier - Part I

This blog on leadership has three sections.  Part I, as Simon Sinek suggests, starts with “why”; why are we talking about leadership at all?  Part II focuses on “what”; what leaders actually do for work.  And Part III focuses on the “how”; how you can develop your leadership values and most importantly habits.

I can count on one hand how many leaders I’ve observed over the years who I truly aspired to emulate. There were certainly a few, and they were phenomenal.  But many others were examples of what not to be.  Unfortunately I know I’m not the only one who has had this experience.

Leaders affect both businesses as well as individual people's lives.  The impact that leaders have, both the good ones and the bad, can be immeasurable.  So it’s worth asking, what makes good leaders so good, and bad leaders so bad?

I spent a couple decades searching for these answers.  Of course I observed those around me.  I read books, visited websites, watched talks, etc, but most of what I found was underwhelming.  Most of these just offered lists of behaviors, things like the ten traits of the effective leader or the 20 rules of leadership, etc.  By and large, these resources didn’t seem to agree with one another, and nothing really resonated for me. Then a few years back I came across a presentation given by a former Marine Corps Colonel.

Bosses, the Colonel said, get their authority from the organization they work for; 
leaders, on the other hand, get their authority from those they lead.

And with that I had instant satisfaction, I knew that I had found what I had been searching for.  This perspective at once described quite concisely both the good leaders I had observed as well as the bad (the bosses). It provided values that I could wrap my mind around and apply.  It is the antithesis of ego. It puts other people first. It screams humility, service, and respect. It demands that you earn the right to lead, that you earn the following of those in your charge.  It requires decency, patience, compassion and empathy.  It says so much, yet it does so in one unforgettable and easy to understand sentence.

This concept is the core of what is known as “Servant Leadership”.  I later discovered that it was first made popular by Robert Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader”.  Written in 1970, it is widely regarded as a seminal work on the topic.  From the Marine Colonel I mentioned earlier to Admiral William McRaven to retired Navy Seal Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink and many more, you’ll hear former military officers talk a lot about servant leadership.  Jocko Willink offers a useful metaphor to describe this idea that leaders get their authority from those they lead: “Think of the amount of influence you have on the people around you as a bank account. Leadership capital represents the funds available in that account. In every interaction with others, you are either depositing funds and acquiring more leadership capital, or you are debiting the account and spending your leadership capital.”  Bosses and bad leaders do not subscribe to this theory; remember, they get their authority from the organization or perhaps they believe it is their innate right, thus they tend to simply demand blind obedience and make demands that they expect to be met.  But good leaders operate under this servant leadership paradigm in which they have to earn the right to lead, and Jocko offers a way to somewhat quantify this through the concept of “leadership capital”.

I wish I had found this concept of Servant Leadership two decades sooner.  It is a belief system that I can build from as I aspire to improve my effectiveness as a leader.  I hope that you find it as helpful as I do. You might be curious for some tangible ideas of what leaders actually do.  This will be the topic of part 2 in this 3 part series.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!


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Leadership basics I wish I had learned earlier - Part III

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