Great leadership is built on three pillars. Three pillars that you will have demonstrated multiple times over your life already, but perhaps you were not aware of their importance. Three pillars which, if you focus on applying each day, from this point forward, will help you become a great leader … not just sometimes, but the majority of the time.
BUT FIRST, WHAT IS GREAT LEADERSHIP?
This might sound odd, but I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time on this. We all know a great leader when we see or experience one. I'd for example, name Jeff Bezos, Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson. You might choose these or others.
But in the main, we'd probably quickly come to a consensus around a set of individuals who we believe equally are, or at least once were, great leaders.
I also believe if I polled everyone reading this book to draw up a list of leaders, we'd again quickly find a set that we agree would deserve the title 'great'. But, like an elephant, describing what makes them great, in a scientific manner at least, is surprisingly difficult. And that's because in many cases, our list would be built around names who have achieved great things, rather than a definitive assessment of their approach to leadership.
You see, there are so many ways to lead. In our minds we might think great leaders are, at the very least, great listeners, empathisers, empowerers, deciders, committers, communicators, and influencers and that they are believable, credible, trustworthy, honest, resilient, humble, confident, communicative, creative and innovative.
But that's not entirely true.
For example, Donald Trump was able to build trust with many, despite being shown to have posted misleading tweets over 20 000 times! I don't like him, I don't agree with his politics, but I can't equally say he wasn't a great leader. He had something about him that captivated over 70 million Americans. Steve Jobs is another interesting example. In his case, he was able to generate a god-like following despite not being known for showing significant levels of empathy.
It's worth also noting that great leaders are not recognised as being great for their whole career. They tend to be analysed at points in their lives when they have been successful, as opposed to when they failed. Would Richard Branson have been flagged as being a great leader when, at 16, he dropped out of school to set up the magazine Student? And what about the founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick? For many, he went from hero to zero in the space of a few years, which ultimately led to him standing down as CEO, in the same way Jobs had to at Apple many years earlier.
You see, leadership isn't an innate characteristic that we should expect to proudly demonstrate every day of our lives. It depends on circumstances and situations, societal norms at the time and, of course, other people’s perceptions of how we act. And our praise and adoration are typically only attributed to people who have been involved in something significant, without regard to whether their leadership was in fact impactful. So, good leadership, to me at least, is somewhat ethereal.
Nonetheless, I still believe that there are three pillars that truly great leaders demonstrate more consistently than others, and that the need for such leaders is more in demand now than at any point in living memory.
I'm equally convinced that you have demonstrated these traits on many occasions in your own life. And therefore, I’m certain that if you apply these traits deliberately and consistently, you too can be recognised as a great leader no matter what path your life takes.
PILLAR ONE: SET MISSIONS THAT WIN HEARTS OVER MINDS
If you want to lead, you have to win hearts, not minds.
We might all like to think that our decision making is rational and considered. And that regardless of whether you are leading a local gardening club or a multinational listed corporate, the key to great leadership is to provide a set of rational goals for people to align around. But the reality is we are all led by our hearts, not our heads.
In fact, emotions are at the centre of virtually every decision we ever make: what cars we buy, who we love, where we go on holiday, where we decide to live, which politicians we vote for, which companies we work for, what stocks we choose to invest in.
Humans are unique as a species because our emotional range extends far beyond any other animal on the planet. Consider for a moment the number of feelings we can have from just using our imaginations. A well-told story can incite fear, laughter and sadness in just a few pages. And when a well-known character is killed off in our favourite TV series, this can create feelings of loss and, dare I say, even bereavement.
It's that ability of ours to imagine that differentiates us. In fact, our imagination is the basis for how we organise ourselves as a society. Our legal, financial and government systems are all essentially illusionary. We readily accept that handing over a piece of paper with a $ sign on it will be accepted, despite the fact the paper itself is worthless. Bitcoin is another upcoming example of an imaginary system, which may, in time, generate enough trust that it becomes the prevailing method to transact or store value.
Great leaders seem to intrinsically understand this paradox that influencing others to act requires more than presenting a set of facts and rational assumptions. It requires the presentation of stories that capture the hearts and imagination of others. And they do that by creating and sharing visions that are transcendental when compared to the seemingly more objective and measurable goals used by most organisations.
Consider these two job proposals. Which would interest you more?
A) We need a CEO, preferably with experience in marketing, who can help increase sales by 20% and uplift margin by 24%.
B) Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?
Both adverts could be for identical roles, but I know which I'd take and indeed, John Sculley obviously agreed with me, because it was this now-famous line that Steve Jobs used to lure him from PepsiCo to Apple.
As John Sculley says in several interviews, the genius of leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates wasn't that they were overly interested in profits. They were, in fact, more focused on delivering a noble cause, one which would benefit society in some way, shape or form and one which, if carried out successfully, 'could' also generate profits.
Perhaps you’re different, but most people I know would far prefer to work in an organisation where there is a cause to align behind, especially if it offers similar industry level pay and benefits. And great leaders understand this more than most, which is why they don't set transactional goals to inspire their teams. To underscore this point, think how all companies need to turn a profit. But leaders who set profit as the primary goal have to make transactional pacts with their staff, which simplify typically to ‘If you do something for me, I'll do something for you.’ Usually, this is built around pay, but many organisations now also enhance this transaction, or pact, with offers of future promotions for those who help achieve these objective goals.
Visionary leaders, on the other hand, build support by creating movements. They set purposeful targets, which 'transcend' simply generating profits, and which emotionally resonate with their teams. They offer people the opportunity to do something which feels good in its own right, with or without a competitive pay cheque and share scheme.
Today, the majority of leaders still have profit generation as the primary goal and rely on transactional relationships to deliver, but purpose-driven leadership is starting to build significant momentum. Examples include Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, who has set a vision of helping humanity live on Mars.
Or what about Paul Polman, who placed sustainability as a key goal for Unilever? This, in turn, led to product divisions focusing on solving real-world problems, such as eradicating dysentery, rather than the seemingly simpler goal of trying to increase sales of Lifebuoy soap.
A third example comes from the founders of Wise, Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus. They did not focus on profit margin for their cross-border payment solution. Instead, they sold a vision to staff, customers and investors alike, that they wanted to work towards helping people transfer money to their loved ones for free.
In all three cases, these visionary leaders have created companies that have far out-performed their competitors across every measure.
So next time you are given the opportunity to lead a team, don't start by setting a rational, transactional goal such as profit, growth or margin. Go deeper and look for the real benefits that you can bring to your team, your customers or even society at large. Then sell the 'story' to build that support base of advocates and prepare to be amazed at how much effort they'll put in to help the collective achievement of your vision.
It's worth flagging at this point that the vision you set must be something you believe in too.
This last point is perhaps the most important take away of all. You can only truly be a great leader if you are leading towards something that you passionately believe in! If you yourself don't believe, you might become a good manager or organiser, but you cannot ever become a great leader.
PILLAR TWO: BE CURIOUS
My second observation about great leaders is that they all display immense levels of curiosity. Could you imagine Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Richard Branson being successful without having intensely inquisitive minds?
Of course not.
But don't make the mistake of assuming these leaders limited their curiosity to designing new cutting edge products and services. They each had to be equally curious about people too, because without people, their ideas would never have seen the light of day. Each of them has had to find ways to positively manipulate others to turn ideas into reality.
Some leaders, like Richard Branson, are, or at least come across as being incredibly empathetic in the process. Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, perhaps less so. But in all cases they have had to be curious, because if you are not continually focused on experimenting with different ways to bring out the best from your teams, you'll miss the opportunities that are available.
It's also important to highlight that your leadership style cannot remain static throughout your career. The approach you take will have to adapt depending on the circumstances you face at the time. This is incredibly important.
I have personal experience of trying to apply a leadership style that had worked well for me in the past, to a new team that was operating in a different environment. What I was sure would increase engagement and productivity had precisely the opposite result. I had lost my curiosity about the art of good leadership and assumed that what worked previously would work again and again. I failed to test, observe and then adapt my approach.
These negative experiences helped me understand that perspective on the correct approach is important, but it cannot be treated as more than a best guess or hypothesis, and that if you are not adapting regularly, you are doing it wrong. Take the idea, run the experiment and be curious about the result. And don't take the result personally if it highlights blind spots or issues in how you are perceived.
Genuine curiosity about how others perceive you is such an important mindset for all great leaders, as it helps replace the hurt that can occur from constructive criticism with a more objective personal interest about what one needs to do to improve. Being linear and assuming previous methods are correct may work in maths, but certainly cannot be applied with humans.
Great leadership is built on an appreciation of the diversity of human interaction, the emotions that drive each of us, and having enough curiosity to continually iterate your approach. The worst leaders I've experienced are, in fact, those who have lost their curiosity. Their approach quickly disintegrates into arrogance and hubris. And the longer this is left to fester, the worse they get and the harder it becomes for them to change. Shareholders and boards that allow non-curious leaders to remain in their positions of power fully deserve the negative consequences that follow. And those consequences can be disastrous.
Imagine, for example, if the leadership team of Blockbuster had been more curious about the possibilities Netflix offered, in the same way Google was about Android. Blockbuster eventually went bust whilst Google's Android now powers 90% of devices on the planet.
But to be fair, how could the Blockbuster leadership team be curious? They did not have a deep underlying purpose beyond profit. Instead they focused on the transactional goals of growing their $5 billion revenue, of which 17% came from late-returns penalties. So it's not surprising they lacked the curiosity to explore the postal and later streaming models that made Netflix so successful.
By setting a powerful purpose as your north star, it's so much easier to develop a culture of curiosity. And this need is only becoming greater, as technology continues to develop faster than at any point in our history. It's impossible to predict the future in a fast-changing world, so only the leaders who remain curious and engender curiosity across their organisations