The Two Leadership Truths
Too many people aspire to leadership roles for the wrong reasons. “Becoming a leader,” they think, “is the best way to make the most money” or “get the most perks” or “have the most control.” Ambition fuels achievement and is essential to a thriving career. But it is a mistake to pursue leadership roles for selfish reasons. Seeking leadership roles shouldn’t be about what the role can do to advance your career. Lots of things can help you be an effective leader. But selfishness isn’t one of them.
It’s easy to get swept up in trying to develop your leadership characteristics as a way to become a stronger leader. There is certainly no shortage of characteristics to choose from in the leadership patchwork. Take a quick look at the leadership books on your nightstand and you’re bound to find scores of characteristics that you’re expected to possess and develop, such as integrity, confidence, courage, imagination, curiosity, persistence, honesty, passion, focus, humility, flexibility, resourcefulness, assertiveness, patience, and smarts.
When you consider the laundry list of characteristics that you’re expected to embody as a leader, two realities are worth considering. First, the list of characteristics is not static. The list never stops growing or changing. With every new leadership book, blog post, and article, you’re bound to learn about some new characteristic of leadership that you’ll be expected to possess.
The second reality is a function of the first. If the bulk of your time is spent on developing and strengthening leader characteristics, you’ll never have time to actually lead.
So what should the aspiring leader focus on? You’ll be better off spending less time on attending to ever-shifting leadership characteristics and spending more time on these two essential leadership truths:
- Leadership is about leaving people better off than you found them.
- Leadership is about leaving the organization better off than you found it.
The focus of leadership should be on those whom you are privileged to lead. Think, for example, about a leader you greatly admire. Pick someone who you actually worked for, versus someone on the world stage. The leader you most admire is the person who took a deep and genuine interest in you. The best leaders aren’t selfish, they’re selfless. They want to know about our dreams, our hopes, and our goals. They focus on helping us develop our talents, lift our standards, build our ownership. As a result, we grow our leadership capabilities too. Great leaders leave us better off than they found us.
The transformative impact that leaders have at the individual level – by focusing on those being led – eventually has a transformative impact on the entire organization. Leaders beget more leaders, who, in turn, beget more leaders. The rippling effect reverberates throughout an organization’s culture and shows up in the form of higher morale, greater loyalty, and superior performance.
The two leadership truths are intertwined. People are the means to which organizational ends are achieved. For this reason, the first truth is more important than the second. If leaders fixate on truth number two – production and output – to the exclusion of truth number one, people will feel used and disrespected and will check out. This isn’t the case in reverse. If a leader focuses on leaving people better off then they found them, they’ll attend to their growth and development, they’ll focus on lifting their standards, and they’ll enlarge their capabilities. The individual people-focus can only have a positive impact on the organization.
Leadership, then, isn’t really about the leader. It’s about those being led, individually and collectively. It’s about moving people and organizations forward. It’s about creating momentum toward organizational goals. It’s about progress. But most of all, it’s about leaving people and organizations better off than you found them.
Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting. His latest book is Leaders Open Doors, and focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. To inquire about having Bill work with your organization, contact email@example.com.