Richard Branson famously said “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!”
As much as this presents a great philosophy by which to live (living in the moment, getting out of your comfort zone etc.) there is one scenario that presents an interesting dilemma.
I’d like to make the point here of defining leadership, specifically in relation to distancing it from ‘management’. Leadership is the qualities, the soft skills, the aptitude and the presence you exude — compared to management, which is the physical systems and structures that support you in your role as a leader.
Leadership is like an elite poker game. The stakes are high and if you’re not at the top of your game, your contemporaries will find you out and leave you penniless.
In the mammalian kingdom usually leaders are the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest and so on. In 90% of scenarios, a leader who just can’t cut it are either ousted or worse, killed. There are traditionally two reasons for this — either the competitor believes they’re better or simply that you’re not worthy for the post you have. Of course, this is the absolute but it gives some interesting insights into the responsibility that leaders have to perform and the pressure that their team put on them around delivery — including the repercussions if you can’t cut it.
I sometimes feel we’ve lost collective visibility as to what good leadership is. We can forever debate and list the traits. I’d rather adopt a more reflective approach which relates to the more instinctive requirements for a good leader. That is, in order to be a great leader, you have to be worthy of being followed.
Given this in mind, we also don’t spend much time defining what a good follower is. If we think about great military, political, business or sports leaders — the ability to lead denotes the ability to have your team, organizations, squad or nation follow you; whether it’s in to battle, adopting reform, entering new markets and so on. The point is that they have this unprecedented ability to both inspire and influence huge groups of people to commit themselves to your vision, your goal and your strategy.
In order to emphasise my point can I please point your attention towards politics. I remember back in May 2015 watching the political ‘leaders’ of the day debating some of the most pressing issues facing the UK. I’ve always been interested in politics and have effectively disengaged myself by debating topics to death within my own head. So I started assessing the debates based on a different gradient — ‘who could I follow?’ Who was worthy of being followed? Who presented a vision of the UK that I could get behind?
Behind the make-up, the soothing lighting, the vague statements, the dodging questions, the misrepresentation of statistics, party buzzwords and obviously, past successes and failures — it’s clear that these are hardly the great leaders we hear about in the history books. David Cameron is no Alexander the Great or Ramses II.
So where does this leave us? What if there is no room in the modern world for genuinely great leaders who are worthy of being followed. What if we’re actually seeing is the democratisation of leadership where because of an educated populace we’re more cynical about great leaders. Maybe there was never such a thing as a great leader and in the emotional arena of war, uncertainty, change etc. the general population were hypnotized. In their collective euphoria they lost sight of reason and scrutiny. Do we want that kind of leader given some of the lessons of history?
I would argue not. But what we do need is leaders who can be followed. Leaders who can set a vision, lead a team, inspire and influence them and those involved. The only gauge is that this kind of leadership needs to be mutual. The leader has to be able to believe they can lead and the team has to believe they can follow.
Which brings me back to Richard Branson’s quote — leadership is something you shouldn’t have to learn on the job. Leadership is something you have — even if it’s just a glimmer and it needs refining and improving, you need to have it (whatever ‘it’ is). Otherwise, I take you back to the poker game and the mammalian kingdom analogies because remember, when the stakes are high and people start questioning you’re abilities, you’re as good as gone anyway.
I’d like to finish off with two questions. The world is full of ‘leaders’. In other words, people who have positions of authority and have team members to account for. My question to you is — are you worthy of being followed? If not, why not and how can you change? Part of me thinks that someone must have seen it in you in order to put you there. Someone was ready to follow you by giving you the job. When you understand what it was about you — you can work towards refining your leadership style.
But also, in a world full of ‘leaders’ — there’s also a world full of followers. Is your leader worthy? Are you able to follow them? If not -why not? I would argue that if you can’t follow your leader, you’re either in the wrong team or I’ve just identified a post you should be aiming for.