We all recognize great leadership when we see it. But what characterizes great leadership? Is it an inspirational speaker articulating a goosebump-inducing vision? Or an executive with the five universally praised characteristics Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeiffer identified: modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and selflessness? Or is it a great manager of people, someone who understands the aspirations of each report, charts a career path, assigns meaningful work along that path, and champions their promotion? Or perhaps leadership means having the courage to make the hard, but right decision?
Nelson Mandela popularized the idea of leading from behind. “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
But Steve Jobs and Jack Welch, two of the iconic business leaders of the past twenty-five years, didn’t shepherd Apple and GE, so much as throw these businesses on their backs and haul them up the mountain. At least, that’s the image they projected; two Titans holding up the sky like Atlas.
Joshua Rothman asks What is leadership? in Shut Up and Sit Down, a New Yorker primer on leadership books, advice and research. Rothman highlights HBS professor Gautam Mukunda’s research contrasting success by promoting internal leaders with hiring external ones. Mukunda observed some organizations like the military filter their leaders by requiring them to rise through their ranks before attaining a leadership position. Companies often hire external CEOs who haven’t been filtered. He concludes filtered candidates ultimately exhibit similar leadership characteristics and success as their predecessor, while unfiltered candidates are highly variable - either much better or much worse than the internal candidate; they are the tails of the Gaussian distribution.
I’ve met many leaders of companies and worked for a few. Each leader has a different leadership style. Some ebullient storytellers, bellowing a goosebump-inducing vision on stage to enrapture their teams. More understated leaders from behind laud the accomplishments of their teams, using other voices to captivate. Still others challenge, demand and push. They all lead.
Rothman concludes, “To some extent, leaders are storytellers; really, though, they are characters in stories. They play leading roles, but in dramas they can’t predict and don’t always understand” - an unsatisfying answer. There may never be a canonical definition of great leadership because like writing or speaking or managing, we can be successful with many different styles. Studying other great leaders is important, of course, to add new techniques to a repertoire.
The cornerstone of great leadership is authenticity. Leaders ask us to believe, to give more, to sacrifice. To trust a leader, his or her leadership must be genuine, a true reflection of their strengths, values and culture. Leaders can engender that trust in many different ways, leading from the front or the back, provided their authenticity is apparent.