The other day I got asked to give some examples of what a leader ought to do. I thought it was an interesting question and I’d love to know what prompted it but in the absence of that I decided to talk about what a leader is for, because I think that will give an idea what activities might fall out of that.
To my mind being a leader is much more about how and who you are, rather than what you do.
When you look for definitions of leadership you end up with this sort of thing:
“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do what you want done because he wants to do it” Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality” Warren Bennis
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, become more, you are a leader” John Quincy Adams
The last one is perhaps my favourite leadership quote of all time because for me it sums up what I think leadership should be about.
Your primary task as a leader is to inspire others with your vision of how things could be better.
It doesn’t matter what your leadership role is, whether it’s at work, in your community, as a political activist or as a family member. As a leader you are there to help people believe that there is a better way to be and that you know what it is.
Leadership Activity #1: Storytelling
As a leader who inspires others you need to be able to tell a really good story, like these guys did:
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?
I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”
Winston Churchill’s first speech as British Prime Minister in 1940
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1963
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1961
Now don’t let me freak you out.
Those are examples of exceptional speeches, crafted no doubt by exceptional speechwriters and delivered by exceptional leaders.
Very few of us can hope to reach those standards but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn how to create and deliver speeches and presentations that express in inspiring terms your own vision for how things could be better, so that other people come to agree with you and support you in your vision. You don't have to be a world-class statesman to be a great leader.
I’m currently writing an in-depth guide for my subscribers that will take you step-by-step through the process of creating and presenting your own inspiring story. If you’d like to be the first to receive it when it goes live you can sign up here.
Leadership Activity #2: Team Coaching
Once you have your team on board your next task is to collaborate with them to agree a plan of action.
Just because you have the title "leader" and it’s your vision, that doesn’t mean you necessarily know the best way to achieve it - a point that an awful lot of leaders seem to forget.
You will be a far more powerful leader if you act as a facilitator for the group. You need to
give them space to think and draw out ideas
coach them to expand on ideas and develop their thinking
help them explore how best to work together to ensure everyone is working to their strengths
keep them on track to achieve their goals
celebrate successes and learn from setbacks
It's very tempting as a leader to think that you have all the answers and that all you need to do is tell people what to do and how to do it, and then make sure that's what they do.
This is one of the most popular ways to lead and manage and it's also one of the most popular reasons people give for changing jobs - all you do when you take this approach is stifle creativity, make people feel micro-managed and generally make a nuisance of yourself.
Learn instead how to facilitate and coach your people and you will not only get far better results but you'll be growing the next generation of leaders at the same time.
Leadership Activity #3: Cheerleading
Once you’ve set the vision and enabled your team, your next task is to get out of their way, clear their path and spread the word.
Some leaders think they need to be involved to keep things on track - this is too often perceived as micro-managing as I said above.
What’s far more useful to your team is if you act as their snow-plough and cheerleader.
You can do this in the following ways:
getting senior influencers on-side
introducing the team towards the right key-stakeholders
keeping the vision alive and inspiring, particularly when things get tough
rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty/menial jobs that no-one else wants to do
loudly and publicly supporting the great job your team is doing.
I have a friend who describes much of her role as a manager as "defending my team from nonsense from above". By this I believe she means acting as a kind of gate guardian, filtering the unreasonable requests, ridiculous demands and politicking that she sees going at at senior levels in her organisation. She may not be in a designated leadership role but what she is doing is a far better job of leadership than those more senior than her.
Are you a gate guardian or a producer of "nonsense from above"?
Clearly this is not an exhaustive list of what you ought to be doing as a leader but I hope it’s a useful starting point that gives you an idea of what next-generation leadership is all about.
Leadership is no longer about command and control.
It’s about inspiring and coaching and enabling others so that they can “dream more, learn more, do more, become more”.