What goes on in the brain of the average CEO? Surely, they’re human like the rest of us? Surely, they also have a heart? Maybe they even have qualities such as intelligence, sensitivity and self-awareness – but why are these attributes so frequently absent in leadership?
Maybe it’s because in leadership development, we focus too much on the “leader” and not enough on the “ship.” The notion that love is important is a hard sell to leaders, but it’s not to the team. That’s why they are a team: They have unifying values and principles in common.
Are people born to be leaders? Somewhere, behaviours are learned, probably before college or professional qualifications. According to my research with Pippa Malmgren, the loss of a parent or the presence of trauma in youth is surprisingly common in business leaders. This, without a doubt, is excellent preparation. It’s not what you’d call training, though; it’s the development of an attitude.
Of course, leaders need to be psychologically robust enough to live without praise. While praise going down the structure is highly valued and shared, praise going up the structure can seem calculated and, therefore, insincere. So often, you can’t train people for this experience. The only way to learn how tough it is at the top is to be there. The path to the top calls more frequently for endurance than it does achievement. Leadership belongs to the psychologically robust – those who do not need love.
Let’s say you come across three people breaking rocks in a quarry. The first says they’re breaking rocks. “Well, obviously,” you think. The second says they’re breaking rocks to atone for a crime. That’s a bit more interesting, but hardly motivating. The third says they are building a cathedral. Which prisoner would you prefer to work with? It’s all about the story and the team. Leaders need to be driven by a love for something much bigger than themselves.
When the leader loves themselves first, then their default approach is mere management. Leaders do the right things. Managers merely do things right. They’re similar but different. We end turn our managers into monsters when we reduce them to task and finance orientation and then add the lack of emotional support to make an already starved ego hungrier still. This process explains why mediocre managers feel the need to predict: They need to be the smartest person in the room. The true leader’s job, however, is to make everyone else feel like they’re the smartest person in the room.
Short-term finance dominates in too many of today’s organizations, and anyone knows what that focus does. Finance is like fire – a good servant, but an evil master. The leader needs to act as water carrier to quench thirst and extinguish flames. Can you train this skill? You can try, but there is an immutable rule in training: All competence follows preference. People become good at what they love doing.
You can begin to see that typical expectations for leadership are unrealistic, especially during bad times. Anyone can lead when the going’s good, but all leadership needs to be measured from the bottom. Bad times are excellent training for real leaders. Love is bigger than just the present.
Myth surrounds leaders. They’re all-seeing. They’re omnipotent. They’re super-intelligent. Business is the management of social relationships for profit, where the profit might be financial. Having an intellect is helpful but not essential. It’s not a technical process (although knowledge of technology also helps). It’s not a financial process (although it helps to have that, too). It’s a social process. Leaders, therefore, need to be good with the five Cs: capital, clients, collaborators (or suppliers, as we used to call them), colleagues and, if you’re smart, cohabiters. That means leaders need flexibility and a love of more ambiguity. (And yes, that irrational word – “love” – is key, like it is in so many other places.)
Real leadership lives on love. This is not some greeting card version of love. It involves the very definition of it – the ability to put the success of the team before anything else, even your own needs. That’s the real definition of leadership.
About the author
Chris Lewis is co-author, with Dr. Pippa Malmgren, of “The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century.” A former journalist, Chris is founder of one of the largest creative agencies in the world, LEWIS.
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