The World’s Shortest How-To List for Leaders

If you do a search for advice on leadership, you’ll find a lot of lists:

  • “Top 10 Things All Leaders Must Know”
  • “Leadership Advice from 5 Top Executives”
  • “The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership,” etc, etc.

I almost always find these lists worth reading. But at the same time, I find that in one sense, they all completely miss the point.

That’s because by the very act of making a list about leading, you are making sure that whoever reads that list will not be thinking like a leader. A list is a formula, an algorithm. And the urge to follow a formula is the very opposite of what makes a leader.

There is no algorithmic solution to leadership, no formula to follow. We wish there were. But if there were a formula for leadership, it wouldn’t be leadership. That’s because leadership is essentially about change: no change, no leadership. As Jack Welch of GE said, “Don’t manage, lead change — before you have to.” And if there were a formula for leading change, well, it wouldn’t be change, would it?

“Oh, things changed? Here, just follow this list, it’s what we always did, uh … before everything changed.”

Think about what leaders do, why we have them. Leaders lead. They walk at the front of the line, towards the unknown. Whatever is unknown might be dangerous. And that’s why we look around for a leader to put at the front of the line.

How do you get someone to take a job where the whole point is that they’re going to be the first one to take an arrow, or to discover there are crocodiles in the river? Unfortunately, this question leads us to the regrettably strong link between leadership and ego. Because one solution to the leader-hiring problem is to find the egomaniac in the tribe, give him a fancy title and tell him, frequently, how magnificent he is.

“Oh exalted one! All tremble before your might! We joyfully follow your lead into that dark cave that might have a bear in it! After you, your excellency!”

That’s still a popular way of choosing leaders, as the prevalence of egomaniacs in leadership positions shows. But it’s probably not the best way. If we’re going to give power to egomaniacs, we shouldn’t be surprised if they then turn out to be more interested in serving themselves than serving us.

We do need leaders who lead, who will walk at the front of the line towards the unknown.

It’s just that we need them to do it for the right reason: that is, not just for their own deluded sense of glory, but for the greater good of the tribe — part of what that means, of course, is that a true leader is actually a servant.

And that leads me to my mission here today: to deliver to you the World’s Shortest Leadership List. It’s the world’s shortest because it has only one item on it. That is the following:

If you want to be a leader, turn towards fear, for the greater good.

After working for a lot of leaders, good and bad, and taking leadership roles myself, I’m convinced that this is the one thing that makes the difference: You must be willing to turn towards fear, for the greater good. In other words, to take the risk of sacrificing yourself.

That’s the paradox of power: you gain power from the people you serve. You do that by showing that you’re willing to risk your own failure for their success.

There are certainly other things that are important for leaders to do. If I were to make a list with more than one item on it, it would include these:

  1. Hire the person, not the qualifications. I’ve worked with people from Harvard and Stanford, and people with little formal education at all, and I’ve found that a resume doesn’t predict performance. What always ends up making someone great turns out to be their inherent desire to do good work. If they don’t know how to do the good work, they’ll learn. If you hire people like this, leading is a lot easier. I’ve realized that the most valuable talent I have is that I can recognize talent in other people.
  2. Make the work the reward. If you have to use money to get people to do the work, you probably have a problem. The best people you’ll find are not motivated by money — in fact, studies show that creative people tend to be de-motivated by money. What they want is satisfying work, and recognition for doing it well. At my company, we provide media consulting for people who are making the world a better place. It’s really satisfying work, and we attract great people. I don’t have to worry about making them do a good job — that’s what they want to do. So once again, leading gets a lot easier. (And by the way, you don’t have to be in a traditionally “fun” industry to offer people good work. Read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, or Start Something That Matters, by Blake Mycoskie. Both books are by leaders of great places to work — and as it happens, both are about the business of selling shoes.)
  3. Place power in the mission, not the person. If you can show — by your actions, not just your words — that decisions are made based on what best serves the mission, not just what best serves you, then people will follow you. If instead you show that it’s really just about you, then they won’t follow. Why should they?
  4. Focus: don’t do a bunch of things you’re mediocre at, focus on one thing at which you can be great.
  5. Communicate, all the time, more than you think you have to.
  6. Have great processes, not just great ideas. We sometimes think leaders are all about inspiring visions, while mere managers plod away on the details. Inspiring visions don’t get very far if the processes are a mess. To succeed, you need both strategic excellence and operational excellence.

But there we go, making a long list.

Let’s get back to the one thing that matters. What separates leaders from everyone else is being able to turn towards fear, for the greater good.

This is what I have seen in every leader who has inspired me. I can tell you it sure inspired me in the best leader I’ve ever worked for. That was on a presidential campaign — and I hope you’d be able to hear this whether you voted for this particular candidate or not. Because I can tell you from first-hand experience that throughout the campaign, that candidate made it very clear to all of us that he would lose before he would sacrifice the values that had brought us all together. And he backed that up, by the actions he took even when no one outside the campaign would ever have seen if he had betrayed those values. In other words, he was ready to sacrifice his own good for what we all saw as the greater good.

If he had lost, in the final analysis, it would have been OK. When someone knows that, that’s how they’re able to turn towards fear. By doing so, they conquer fear on our behalf. That’s how they’re able to lead.

And that’s why we were following him.

Try this out, in your own life. Watch what happens the next time you’re in a group of people, facing fear. I can tell you what happens, nine times out of ten. I noticed it early in my management career. A group of us were sitting around griping about something we thought was going seriously wrong at our company. “Yeah!” we all said, “Yeah! We don’t have to stand for this! Damn right! Let’s go tell ’em!”

And then an executive came along. So I stood up to tell him what we all thought. And as I started talking, I looked around at all my compadres — and noticed how all of a sudden I seemed to have a lot fewer compadres than I’d had just a moment before.

But you know what? It worked out just fine.

Good leaders want to hear the truth — hey, there’s another item for a list! As long as you’re not freaking out, you should be able to tell them what you really think — especially if your next step is to suggest a solution. And so it turned out that a confrontation with fear turned out to be an opportunity for me. An opportunity to learn how to lead.

Leaders turn towards risk, towards fear, and they do it for the greater good.

So as you pursue your opportunities to be a leader, that’s the advice I have, my World’s Shortest, One-Item Leadership List.

Watch for opportunities to be scared. When you find one, you may notice that your innards start making a strong case for running away, right now! That’s natural — after all, if you’re not scared, you can’t be brave. But, having noticed that you are scared, remind yourself that while fear is a signal of danger, fear is also a signal of opportunity.

Now, check to see if you’re doing the right thing, or if you’ve gotten yourself in trouble because you’re just a crazy egomaniac.

No? OK, now check to see if you really are in danger. Are you taking arrows? Swimming with crocodiles? Stuck in a cave with a bear? No?

Then take one step towards the fear.

Then take another, followed by another. In my experience, that’s how you learn to be a leader.

The above is based on the text of a speech I gave recently to the graduating class of Leadership Monterey Peninsula, a leadership training program based in Monterey, California.

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