IT’S OFTEN TEMPTING TO THINK that the people who make a real difference in the world are the privileged, the connected, and the wealthy, but that’s merely because the media often seems fixated by such individuals. What frequently goes unnoticed are the countless individuals with an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit who are actually in the process of redefining leadership and contribution for a new generation. They are as different in personality as they are in skin colour or geographical locale. I have met enough of these women and men in the last few years that I’ve spotted a number of things they have in common, despite their other distinctions.
They are highly committed to making themselves better people, of refining those better angels of our nature we all possess to one degree or another. They might have begun with peddling an idea or sought to do things in a new way, but at some point they came to understand that how they accomplished important things was likely more vital than what they ultimately did. Their success was largely predicated on moving out into larger circles, and it was then that they learned that their personal biases, opinions, even prejudices, were getting in the way of the very thing they were attempting to create. They embraced that bigger world and grew more effective as leaders as a result.
Many of today’s effective leaders have learned that it’s just as important to shape the world rather than just build it. It’s an important distinction. To shape something is to woo, cajole, inspire, and ultimate persuade those things and people already around you to focus on aligning their efforts for a greater goal. I’ve seen this work over and over again in places like Africa, where resources are few but people resources are many. Those seeking to build often like to start from scratch. Some of our greatest leaders have worked that way, but often, in any field, it’s more important to align what already exists, and that’s takes leading people to work together. It’s never easy but often becomes more successful.
The most effective leaders are those who commit themselves to what gives their life personal meaning and a sense of direction. It’s not rocket science; people are most often highly attuned to what means the most to them. This is vital, since leading requires risk and it’s hard to get an individual to commit to something if it doesn’t inspire them. For certain leaders it is an experience they had that drives their conviction; for others it is an idea. But without the passion there will be little sacrifice. It’s tough to lead from the realm of the mundane.
Those capable of leading in new directions are most frequently characterized by vision and not just management. That’s useful in a world that seems ever-changing. How we manage things is vital to success, but when a new course must be charted it takes a visionary to see what is beyond the next obstacle, political change, or business plan. These two abilities – managing and vision – are essential and complementary, but the leaders who inspire the most are those who can see what others can’t.
Some view leadership as a personal pursuit, but the most effective leaders I have seen substitute lift for control. In other words, they develop the knack for bringing others along in their success. That’s not as easy as one might think, for it requires not only a sense of inclusion but humility as well – the ability to share the credit as opposed to monopolizing it, to admitting mistakes and forgiving others who sometimes fail. This is why small to medium-sized businesses are so essential to an economy, or why community groups from the grassroots are central to the life of any city or town – they started together and didn’t come in later to manage something that already existed. The secret is to keep that essence of teamwork intact once success comes along.
It’s time to stop bracketing leadership between the concept of notoriety or financial success. It’s becoming increasingly clear that merely viewing leadership as some great political, financial, arts or sports figure is to miss the point. That’s the standard way of looking at things and it’s not getting us very far. The essence of leadership is that it’s more adaptable in places where people share as opposed to where they control, manipulate, or blindly worship. And that is precisely where most people live. Effective leadership in such a setting has the greatest chance of touching the majority of us because it happens where we live. The secret is to speak to those who want to change their world and not those who already run it.