"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." - John F. Kennedy
What is Leadership?
What exactly does it mean to be a leader?
Leadership is a word that gets thrown around all the time but according to researchers in organisational and social psychology it’s one of the most poorly understood concepts in all cultures and civilisations.
Unfortunately this problem isn’t just a semantic one - flawed assumptions and myths about leadership can have a very negative impact on the way organisations are run whether in business, government or the non profit sector and these organisations in turn determine how our society functions.
If the way we define leadership is central to the way our world works then it’s in all of our interests to spend some time learning about it, so we can hold our own leaders accountable and become more capable leaders ourselves.
And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend when I attended the Hive Global Leaders Program in San Francisco, a gathering of 150 global leaders from over 40 countries.
Over three days, I had the chance to connect with some truly inspiring leaders from a range of industries and to absorb and apply the knowledge provided by the team at Hive. And here’s what I learned:
1) Lead With Purpose
In the simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, and gets up and goes." - John Erskine
What is that special something that all leaders have?
It’s a presence that grabs people’s attention and inspires them, that wins their trust and draws them in like a magnetic field.
Whether it’s Barack Obama addressing the nation from the Oval Office, Peyton Manning organising his teammates for the next drive or the Dalai Lama conducting a ceremony, you know it when you see it but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
Although very few would dispute that this "X Factor" exists in exceptional leaders, we don’t often stop to discuss where it comes from – many people simply attribute it to innate characteristics but the answer isn’t that simple.
At Hive I realised that a big part of this special something can be attributed to clarity of purpose. The most impressive people I met were all able to articulate their reasons for doing what they did in a way that resonated deeply with them.
Over the three days at Hive we were all encouraged to think deeply about our purpose and to meditate on the big question - “Why Are You Alive?”
While I went into the conference feeling I had a good degree of clarity on my own purpose, I still benefited from reflecting on it and refining it even further. By the end I felt that the vision of my purpose was clearer than it had ever been before, and many others felt the same way.
Some even came out of the experience with a new purpose and an action plan to reshape their careers. Although there's no magic recipe for becoming a great leader, a clearly defined purpose is one of the essential ingredients we should all be looking to add from the start of our journey to fulfil our potential as leaders.
2) Lead by Doing
"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."- John Quincy Adams
While having a clearly defined purpose may be at the core of what makes a great leader, simply being able to communicate it is worthless if you’re not taking action to make it a reality. As the great self-made merchant John Wanamaker said, “Nothing comes merely by thinking about it”.
Taking consistent action to realise your purpose, is not only essential to build momentum, it also wins the trust of the people following you towards your vision, which in turn makes them more likely to take action.
One of the big takeaways from Hive was that taking action itself is an art that can be honed and refined – and almost all of us have a lot of work to do on this front.
In what was my favourite workshop of the entire weekend, we took a deep dive into rapid prototyping with Google X co-founder Tom Chi.
Tom has been the driving force behind a number of special projects at Google X and he gave us a brief insight into the mindsets and skillsets he uses to get things done and learn quickly from feedback, before facilitating the workshop.
In the space of 30 minutes we chose a problem to solve related to one of the world’s grand challenges, built a prototype solution and received feedback from a member outside of our own team.
The progress made in such a short space of time was pretty impressive and definitely made me reflect on the way I approach getting things done, both here at MetaLearn and in other areas.
The experience was also a powerful reminder of the link between leading and doing. Just consider why serial entrepreneurs are so sought after by VCs - it’s not because the success of one business magically guarantees the success of the next, it’s because individuals that have taken action before are likely to take action again and inspire their teams to do the same.
Ultimately, there are no real leaders who don’t back up their words with actions – no generals who don’t spend time in the trenches with their troops.
3) Vulnerability Can Be Strength
"You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That's assault, not leadership." - Dwight D. Eisenhower
The traditional image that most people call to mind when they think of a leader is someone who rules through domination, without entertaining suggestions from others; someone who projects strength and authority, who you wouldn’t even dream of striking up a conversation with in the lift or the office cafeteria.
This type of leadership has been the norm in 20th Century and its champions are the kind of leaders who would never dream of admitting errors for fear that the slightest hint of vulnerability would make them appear weak. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
As noted by author and researcher Brene Brown, vulnerability is a form of strength not weakness and is actually one of our most accurate measures of courage – it’s simply the willingness to show up and be seen.
At Hive, we were all encouraged to vulnerable with each other in small groups and share the story of how we came to follow the paths we were on. With everyone sharing in a safe space, we were able to connect in the space of a few minutes in a way we never could have with hours of small talk.
A few brave souls from the Hive team even chose to share their stories from the stage in front of the whole group of 150 leaders. Rather than weakening them, everyone was amazed by the courage they showed and felt inspired by the way they’d overcome the challenges they faced in their lives.
The key takeaway here is that great leaders aren’t afraid to show themselves for who they are and to admit when they’re wrong. By doing this they forego the petty games of keeping up appearances and blame shifting which are rife in so many organisations.
But perhaps more importantly, by being vulnerable they transcend their own egos to give their followers the license to accept their own imperfections - and that, in my book, is a sign of true strength.
4) Lead by Working on Yourself
“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves." – Ray Kroc
Another big takeaway from the weekend at Hive was the importance of personal development in the leadership process, and the need to integrate the different aspects of life rather than keeping them compartmentalised.
At the core of the Hive philosophy was a holistic approach to health and wellness – and this was built into the conference in a way that I haven’t seen very often before.
Whether it was group meditations, reflecting on our own beliefs or the walk that we took in Bernal Heights on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the focus on cultivating mental and physical wellbeing was a clear thread throughout the conference.
So what exactly does this have to do with leadership?
To put it simply, you must be able to lead yourself in order to lead others. If you’re not able to manage your own thoughts and emotions, then how can you be expected to guide others and make big decisions?
This is something that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders of all time, wrote extensively about in his Meditations - he saw self-regulation, calm in adversity and a willingness to address problems directly as being central to good leadership.
In order to develop the qualities that Marcus and so many other great leaders have embodied over the years, it’s essential that we’re in the right state when making decisions. This means training the mind, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and exercising regularly
While this may be common knowledge, very few people act on it. When things get hectic the natural response is to prioritise work related tasks over some exercise, when the reality is that making health a secondary priority is more likely to make you a sub par leader and decision maker.
5) Lead With Others, Not In Isolation
"No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it"- Andrew Carnegie
In the rapidly changing, dynamic environment of the 21st century, it no longer makes sense for leaders to stand alone, both inside their own organisations or outside them.
From an internal perspective, leaders would do well to follow the Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s advice – “to lead people, walk beside them."
Instead of seeing leadership as a dominant form of power over people we need to start thinking of leadership as power with people, something that only exists as a relationship between leaders and their followers.
And if leaders are to walk beside their followers it’s essential that they don’t surround themselves with yes men who do as they’re told but with other leaders who have different and complementary skillsets. An organisation with only one leader will always remain a small one with minimal impact.
From an external perspective, leading an organisation can no longer be about beating the competition. If we’re going to have a shot at solving some of the world’s grand challenges we need widespread sharing of expertise and resources across organisations in all fields and increased collaboration between them.
Of everything I learned this was probably the biggest lesson I took from Hive.
As a leader many will look to you for the answers, but inevitably, you won’t always have them. That’s why it’s so important to have a forum to voice the challenges you face and to seek the advice of others with relevant experience.
Perhaps most importantly of all, when you surround yourself with others who are taking action under a shared vision, you start to believe that anything is possible.
And that’s how real change happens.