Choosing Your Leadership

Thursday, I had the pleasure of speaking on leadership to a large group in Akron, Ohio. My core theme was the Five Foundations of Conscious Leadership:

  1. Awake
  2. Aware
  3. Authentic
  4. Accountable
  5. ActionizedTM

My program also spoke about authentic leadership and servant leadership, and it also included a discussion of the vital role of emotional intelligence (EQ) for effective and impactful leadership. I’m a believer in these more authentic approaches to leadership, but I was challenged by some attendees who questioned these new models in light of the “success” of well known leaders of the past (e.g. Jack Welch, Bill Gates, etc.).

Their two specific questions were these:

  1. How do you reconcile the idea of authentic and vulnerable leadership with the style of leadership we see in the heroes of movies (e.g. William Wallace in Braveheart)?
  2. Is authentic and vulnerable leadership limited to small organizations as compared to the traditional type of leadership that is “successful” in large organizations (e.g. Jack Welch at GE)?

These are good questions, and they highlight two important themes about leadership: first, the degree to which our cultural perspectives on leadership are formed and framed by the media and what we think makes a good leader; second, the vital importance of defining success and thereby deciding what type of leader you want to be (and what impact you want to create).

Let’s start with cultural perspectives on leadership. I LOVE Williams Wallace’s leadership in Braveheart, and his inspiring speech to the army before the battle always brings me chills. That also sells movie tickets, and many of the heroes in television and movies play a role that appears invulnerable, tough and fearless. However, that’s the fallacy of the movies. Some time ago, I asked a close friend who is a combat veteran if soldiers were trained not to be afraid (which is what we often see in the movies). He said, “No, we’re often or always afraid, but we’re trained to do our job despite the fear.” That’s a big difference–perhaps the biggest difference–between life and the movies.

The other fallacy some might stumble into when looking at William Wallace’s character in Braveheart is the false conclusion that William Wallace is not authentic or vulnerable. Perhaps it’s his tough exterior and passionate commitment to the cause that misleads us, but if you know Braveheart you know that we often see William Wallace’s heart and vulnerability (even in leading his army into battle). Here’s the most memorable part of his inspiring speech:

Wallace:              Sons of Scotland, I am William Wallace.

Young soldier:      William Wallace is 7 feet tall!

Wallace:              Yes, I’ve heard. Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse. I AM William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?

Veteran soldier:   Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.

Wallace:              Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live – at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!!

Did Wallace tell them that everything was okay and not to be afraid? Did Wallace tell them that they would win the battle and that he had it all together? No, he told them the truth – his truth – that they may die, but he also honestly shared the cost of running and living (namely, their freedom). This is the key – “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”

In business, we rarely fight life-or-death battles, but the battles and challenges are still real. The authentic leader is honest about the fight and creates a “why” (in Braveheart it was freedom) that is beyond financial returns and goals. I see William Wallace in Braveheart as an authentic leader who happened to be dressed in battle gear and carrying a sword. If you follow the story of Wallace in Braveheart, you also know the ways in which he was vulnerable and human. This is at the heart of the authentic leader. And by the way, the men who followed William Wallace were following his passion and his heart, and only an authentic and vulnerable leader leads with heart and passion.

Finally, we come to defining success. When I was asked questions at the program, they were framed in terms of the “success” that these large companies and leaders (such as Jack Welch) had achieved, and my first question in response was, “How are you defining success?” The answer: “Well, the shareholders thought it was successful.” This is THE question that organizations and leaders must ask and answer for themselves – what is the success we are seeking? Success is not the same to everyone, AND success defined around impact does not preclude financial success. Zappos is one great example. Zappos is known for living a culture that nurtures team members and delivers an amazing experience for its customers. While many business books focus on issues like maximizing profits, ROI, product innovation, operational efficiency and beating the competition, Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh barely even acknowledges these topics. By the way, Zappos is also a huge financial success – 1,500 employees, $2 billion plus in revenues and was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Not bad for a leader who is not following the traditional model for business success or corporate leadership.

In addition to defining success for yourself, you must also self-define your leadership – not so much in how you’ll do it, but more in who you will be as a leader and the impact or legacy you want to have as a leader. Don’t be fooled into believing that one company’s success is your success or that another leader’s path is your path. Steve Jobs built an amazing business (Apple), but that doesn’t mean that Steve Jobs was a great leader–it depends on how we define a great leader. Everything I know about Steve Jobs tells me that he was not a great leader in terms of nurturing and developing people. Yes, he was a visionary, and he was amazing at building a culture that certain people wanted to be a part of. For many people, though, they just could not be part of the Apple culture. That doesn’t make the Apple working culture good or bad – it’s just the Apple culture (at least while Steve Jobs was there).

Don’t let yourself believe that there’s only one definition of success or one way to be successful as a leader. My hope is that you’ll find your way based upon core values and a why that fits both who you are and the impact you want to have in your organization, community, family or the world. The way things have been done before (or the way leaders have led before) only proves what has been. You must decide what will be in the future. Borrow from the past if it fits you and your objectives, but be open to creating and leading in new and different ways (even if they aren’t as new or different as you think). In the end, only YOU can define your leadership and that definition (and your commitment to it) will determine your impact as a leader.

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