If you want to read about leadership, go into any bookstore. Or search the Internet. You’ll find millions of entries online and thousands of copies in bookstores. And every book has the answer. They tell you to be a situational leader, primal leader, emotionally intelligent leader, servant leader and the list goes on. Yet, many, many people still struggle with being an effective leader. And even more people are stuck with the belief they were not cut out for leadership. How can so much information on leadership result in so few effective leaders?
Perhaps reading about leadership is analogous to reading a book on riding a bicycle. If you read the best selling book on how to ride a bike, you’ll still get on the bicycle and lose your balance. If you’re a child, you’ll most likely fall. Therefore, reading about leadership won’t guarantee your understanding of leadership.
In addition, people have ideas about what it means to be a leader. In some cases, it comes from Hollywood images. Hollywood often portrays successful CEOs as tough, ruthless, go-getters. On one hand, everyone knows Hollywood is make believe. At the same time, those images stick in your head, especially when those images are associated with success.
Furthermore, there are books that focus on how to intimidate others. Intimidation is used by some to demonstrate authority and control. However, while command and control is believed to be obsolete, it’s still used. Force, manipulation and intimidation are still tools used by some leaders. In the short-term, they produce results. In the long-term, they create unhappy, resentful employees. And resentful employees have a tendency to get revenge on the boss. This can happen in some of the best-known enterprises.
With that said, why are some people great leaders? Is it the age-old belief that leaders are born?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, he conducted research on people who lost their parent(s) at a young age. The book focused on how supposed disadvantages can turn into advantages. He said that if a person lost a parent by or before the age of 20, that person may have developed effective leadership skills. The loss of a parent may require a person to assume a leadership position to handle the family as well as complex affairs that follow death.
When there’s a sudden death, there’s no training or reading that can be done. The leadership demands are real time, especially when there are younger siblings involved.
In Gladwell’s book, he interviewed a number of leaders who loss a parent at a young age. In every case, they said the pressure they experienced from their parent’s death prepared them to handle the pressures at work. They all said they believed that if they were able to handle their parent’s death, everything else was relatively easy.
While I’m not suggesting everyone go through the extreme of losing a parent, there’s something to be learned from Gladwell’s research. It seems extreme chaos prepares you to focus on outcomes instead of leadership styles. As a leader in the face of chaos, you focus on your intention. Because leaders have to produce results through others, it becomes imperative to instruct and guide those you depend on. When facing chaos, you may not be in a position to lose the people around you. Therefore, you begin to think about what is in the best interest of everyone involved – stakeholders.
Leadership really can be like learning to ride a bike. When you first learn to ride a bike, you may be more concerned with not falling. That is like focusing on not using the wrong leadership style. Chaos, like a death in the family, can force you to suspend thoughts of failing. You’ll only focus on taking care of people around you and producing the desired outcomes. On a bicycle, you learn to ride when you focus on getting from point A to point B. And that is leadership, moving the team or company from start to final outcome. The most effective people do that by taking into consideration: what is in the best interest of all involved. The moment you attempt to put that into a formula you’re no longer leading. You’re focused on some image of what it means to be a leader.
Ultimately, there’s no perfect leadership style. While circumstances can shape you, no two situations will be the same. In many cases, you’ll be making it up as you go. If you focus on the outcome and take care of the people around you, success is more likely to become your companion on the leadership journey.