I think about leadership a lot. In my coaching of individuals, in my discussions with corporate leaders, as I read the business headlines, and even as I observe from the sidelines of the soccer field on the weekends. And I’ve become convinced that not enough due has been paid to quiet leadership. In fact, hardly any is paid. It seems we’ve fallen into the cult of the Guru-Savior-Celebrity Leader. The person who proclaims the loudest “Follow me!” and then charges up the hill is the one we are made to believe we should follow. One problem: they’ve often neglected to assess the topography, and have no idea whether there is a shining city of gold on the other side, or a thousand meter drop.
For a while I thought my mistrust of, sometimes even disdain for, leaders of this type was perhaps unfair. After all, for most of the past 20 years, the companies with the flashy CEOs also had the earnings and the stock prices to prove their choices correct. And when they did have failures, it was easy to point to “unusual market forces” or “unfair foreign competition” and to re-direct blame. But, as the mask was peeled back on companies like Enron and then ripped off of companies like Goldman Sachs, my faith in my own good sense was restored. However, there is a lingering side effect that troubles me: we still have a skewed view of “good” leadership.
There are many potentially good leaders out there who will not step up to the plate because they believe in the lie that they must either be the extroverted, uberconfident master-communicator leader, or no leader at all. They say “I’ll never be like that, so why even try?” They do not develop their own leadership skills. They hide at the bottom of the ocean, like a clam. What a tragedy! Because perhaps they are really oysters. If only the grains of sand can be embedded and then cultivated, year after year, they will produce pearls. I am working with some young potential leaders now, some of whom do not fit the natural “charasmatic leader” stereotype. It is exciting to see them recognizing some of their own grains of leadership sand and beginning, just beginning, to develop layers of nacre, which over time will become pearls.
I recently read How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins. It illustrates quite well how some of the best leaders don’t fit the stereotype. I highly recommend this book as well as Good to Great and Built to Last. All three are based on years of research.
If you are struggling with the idea of your own leadership, because you don’t fit the stereotype, I suggest reading the books mentioned above, as well as the writings of Robert K. Greenleaf who coined the term servant-leader. Also, some absolutely essential reading includes French and Raven’s research on power. Then, the challenge is to apply the learning in a way that is authentic to you. Use your resources! Find a mentor, whether formal or informal, a coach, or friends who exemplify these skills and ask them to help you. You will never know what kind of pearls you can produce until you try.