Leadership — genuine, influential, effective leadership — is a subtle thing. It’s not something that readily reduces to a cookie-cutter recipe or paint-by-numbers formula. We all know that. That’s why there have been a thousand good books on leadership, and will be a thousand more. But for all we describe it and study it, it still seems elusive — which is why it so often surprises us when a truly great leader appears in our midst.
Why so elusive? In part, because great leadership is shot through with contradiction.
A great leader is selfless — and has a healthy ego. A great leader is by definition unitary, singular, unique — and somehow inspires thousands to emulate him or her. Great leaders have their heads in the clouds and their toes firmly in the dirt.
Here are five descriptions of what great leaders do, what we call “Five Keys to Legendary Leadership.” The first four are all essential — and are completely contradicted by the fifth. Yet somehow, the first four don’t seem to work without the fifth.
They are the four fingers and thumb of leadership.
Finger #1: Hold the Vision
Building a business takes skill, work, and capital resources. But those are details. More than anything else, building a business—really, building anything—is an act of faith. Because you’re creating something out of nothing. You are moving into the future on invisible wires, without a net.
It’s easy to say, “Hold a vision.” The hard part isn’t the vision. Anyone can come up with a vision. The hard part is the holding.
The single biggest challenge to any organization is the constant cloud of fear and doubt that swirls around the heads of the people involved. As a leader, your job is to hold fast to the big picture, to keep seeing in your mind’s eye, with crystal clarity, where it is you’re going—that place that right at this moment exists only in your mind’s eye. And to keep seeing that, even when nobody else does. Especially when nobody else does. Your people count on you to do this. It’s the biggest job you have.”
Finger #2: Build Your People
Time was, people in a business were often viewed as “workers,” as if, out of the entirety of a person’s being, that which was relevant to the business could be reduced to a single function. Not anymore. Increasingly we’ve come to realize that people are people, and every person in a business is a universe of talents, skills, and potential value. Good businesses look to hire competent employees. Great businesses hire people and then commit to bring out their latent greatness through continual investment.
Finger #3: Do the Work
Great leaders don’t expect anyone else to do anything they haven’t done themselves. They get dirt under their nails and mud on their boots. Abraham Lincoln knew law. He’d practiced it in freezing-cold, bare-floored small-town courtrooms. So did Gandhi. They both emancipated millions—but only because they knew the feel of the craft in their hands. Before he was a great general or the nation’s first (and arguably greatest) president, George Washington worked as a land surveyor. He knew the land he would later govern. As a boy, Sam Walton milked the family cow and sold the surplus milk to neighbors. Bill Gates spent thousands of hours as a teenager programming computers.
This is one of most great leaders’ greatest success secrets: whatever field they are in, whatever business empire they run, the chances are excellent they have done it at some point with their own hands, learning it nuts and bolts, from the ground up.
Finger #4: Stand for Something
Leadership is not something you can put on and take off, like a set of clothes. Your capacity to influence is not something you can rehearse, like a speech in a play. People, contrary to popular belief, are not fools. No matter what front you put on, they will read you, consciously or unconsciously—the you behind the words.
It’s not that what you say isn’t important. It is. That’s just not where the source of your power lies. What you have to give, you offer least of all through what you say; in greater part through what you do; but in greatest part through who you are.
Competence counts—but character matters more. If you want people to follow you, they need to trust that you know what you’re doing. But that’s the smaller part of it. Competence is simply the baseline, the thing that puts you in the game. Character, though, is a precious gem, and anyone who possesses it is worth a great deal to the world around him.
You can lead only as far as you grow.
Thumb: Pass the Mantle
So there you have it. Leaders hold a vision. Leaders care about their people. Leaders get their hands dirty and their boots muddy, do the work and make the tough decisions. And leaders stand for something.
It’s about all those things. But at the same time, it isn’t about any of those things. Because you can hold the biggest vision, care about all your people, do all the work, and stand for something until the end of days — and it’s still you, you, you.
Here is the heart of the contradiction that is great leadership: great leadership isn’t a place you arrive, it is a place into which you disappear.
Great parenting is not about the parent; great teaching is not about the teacher. And great leadership? Whatever it truly is, it’s not about you.