The Riddle of Leadership

by Joseph Kwon in


Would you like to improve your leadership skills?

Maybe you're more comfortable as a follower and want to change that. Or maybe you're a leader who wants to forge new skills. Perhaps you've already taken some steps by picking up a book, taking a training or hiring a coach.

Congratulations! I'm guessing around 5 to 12 leadership principles were poured into your head. Next, you grasp one or two to work on and begin to hammer away. You start to make progress, but a funny thing happens. As you observe your own behavior and that of others through this new lens, something gnaws at you. It's a not quite right feeling like extreme jet lag or a poorly dubbed foreign film. You can't seem to put your finger on it until... "Eureka! There it is." 

The Riddle of Leadership

"How do you explain the fact that so many people in leadership positions embody so few leadership principles?!!!"

Mr. White belittles his team. Mr. Orange plays favorites. Mr. Blonde is an Olympic champion in the blame game. Mr. Pink keeps everyone in the dark. By now you've realized two things: 1) you recognize some of these leaders, and 2) Joe is a fan of the movie "Reservoir Dogs."

But seriously, you are fortunate if you come into contact with a leader who consistently practices the leadership principles swimming around in your head.

 "So what is going on?" 

There is a simple explanation. The way we think about leadership today and the proliferation of leadership lists can obscure how leadership really works. However, once you grasp the "Riddle of Leadership," you will be able to cut through the confusion and build your leadership muscles more effectively. Allow me to explain. 

Most leadership education has a bias towards good leaders.

Think about how most leadership research is tackled. First, good leaders are identified. These leaders typically practice some form of benevolent or servant leadership and have a reputation for integrity. While not lacking in ego or drive, they look out not just for #1, but also the best interests of their followers, the organization, and sometimes the community. Second, in a bit of reverse engineering, attributes these leaders share in common are identified and declared the secret ingredients in the success cake these leaders enjoy.

"So what's the problem with focusing on good leaders? And how do bad leaders matter?"

Viewing leadership solely through the lens of a good leader provides only half the picture and obscures the fundamental ability all leaders must possess.

Leadership is an ability which is neither intrinsically good or bad. Like a sword, leadership can be used for good or evil. How leadership is wielded reveals the morality of the leader, not the leadership skill. In other words, bad leaders have as much to teach us as good leaders about the levers that leaders employ. You don't have to look far to find examples of bad leaders - CEO's, politicians or religious leaders betraying their followers, acting unethically or abusing their power. Still, you're more likely to hear about leadership from Salman Khan's perspective (the American entrepreneur of Khan Academy fame, not the Indian actor) than Genghis Khan's (the Mongolian ruler who destroyed individual tribes in Northeast Asia). I'm a huge fan of Salman Khan, but Genghis Kwon, correction Khan, led the largest empire in the world, surpassed only by the British empire. 

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"So what is the fundamental ability all leaders, good, bad or otherwise, must possess?"

To really understand how leadership works, we need to look at the leadership of both good AND bad leaders and cast away the attributes that are not shared in common. This helps us refine our thinking to find the fundamental ability of all leaders. We are searching for a powerful ability that consistently shines through, despite differences in character, organization, or time period. 

The fundamental ability all leaders must possess is a powerful ability to CONNECT with others. 

Think about any leader you know. Consider how much their success depends on influencing others like employees, suppliers, officials, etc. In order to move someone, you must first connect with them. Otherwise, they will simply go their own way, which in many cases is not the way you need. A connection may be made with positive or negative tactics, but it must be strong enough to make others act. The tactics used will affect how we view the leader, but this is distinct from the leader's effectiveness. Compare, "Your efforts this weekend are crucial to our success" vs. "Do you want to keep your job?" I know which leader I prefer. And while a given leader may not connect personally with you, it is certain that they are connecting with others or their days are numbered.

The power of connection is illustrated by a classic bad leader, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) in Conan the Barbarian. Cue epic music...

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure...

Conan, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is enslaved after his village is destroyed by the forces of Thulsa Doom. Conan is eventually freed and sets off in search of the man who killed his family and stole his father's sword. He makes several allies along the way and finally his goal is within reach. 

Conan disguises himself as a priest and sneaks into the temple. One of the guards spots him and raises the alarm. Conan is beaten and dragged before Thulsa Doom.

Before sending Conan off to be killed, Thulsa Doom lords over Conan and enters into a classic, villain monologue. He proceeds to drop some truth on Conan and explains the Riddle of Steel. It's a truth of life and a truth of leadership.

Thulsa Doom: Shall I tell you? It's the least I can do. Steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; that beautiful girl. Come to me, my child...[coaxes the girl to jump to her death] 

Thulsa Doom: That is strength, boy! That is power! The strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this!"

The Riddle of Leadership is that seeking leadership principles of good leaders doesn't make you a leader. Connection is strength! Connection is power! Leadership principles are nothing without the ability to connect to others.

"So now that I know this, how will this help me build my own leadership muscles more quickly?"

By prioritizing your ability to connect, you can focus on leadership principles that help you build this ability. Also, knowing the goal of a principle allows you to exercise it in a more powerful and authentic way. To get started, follow these EZPZ steps:

  1. View all leadership principles through the lens of how each helps you connect.
  2. Contemplate which leadership principles you already use to connect. Leverage these.
  3. Identify leadership principles you may need to connect, but are not employing. Some may not fit your character or style. Learn these or deploy suitable alternatives.
  4. Vanquish the notion of becoming a leader by completing a checklist. Instead, identify how YOU can connect better and let this be your guide. 

"Come on Joe, you don't seriously expect me to take advice from James Earl Jones in that awful wig? We live in the real world."

Fair point. Not everyone is a fan of Conan. Allow me to share a more real example. A gentleman recently joined our team after over a decade in the military. He shared with us the 11 Leadership Principles of the Marines. These are taught to all ranks because promotions can happen expectedly both on and off the battlefield. So everyone must be trained to lead at a moment's notice.

Let's look at Principle #3:

Know Your People And Look Out For Their Welfare

Imagine two Captains. One, Captain Awesome, genuinely cares about his unit. When possible, Captain Awesome asks questions, offers advice and support, and makes sure everyone is okay. The other, Captain Shady sees his unit as a means for advancement. Captain Shady's actions are inconsistent, shallow and feel fake. Now picture what happens as each shouts "CHARGE!" and leads their respective units into danger. Who will have more success?

Perhaps the principle is about more than just looking out for others. Consider how this principle and the 10 others help forge a strong connection with the Marines in your unit. The type of connection that engenders loyalty, courage in the face of adversity, and trust. Consider how living these principles improves a Marine's ability to connect and to ultimately lead.

The Riddle of Leadership is that many leaders do not embody the leadership principles of good leaders. And yet, they lead. Following leadership principles doesn't make you a leader. The ability to connect to others makes you a leader. The ability to connect is a super power. And since connection is an ability, it is leveraged by both good and bad leaders. Good leaders use positive levers to connect like inspiration, loyalty and trust. Bad leaders use negative levers like fear, coercion and shame. If you want to build your leadership muscles, work on improving your ability to connect. Once you understand the Riddle of Leadership, you are well on your way. 

Let me know your experience on the topic of leadership. I'd really appreciate your input, even if it is just to say, "This guy has no clue..." Someone actually started to say that to me in response to my previous article. When all was said and done, it turned out to be one of my favorite comments ever. 

Thank you!

From the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack:                               K-BILLY's "super sounds of the seventies" weekend
just keeps on coming with this little ditty.
They reached up to 21 in May of 1970.
The George Baker Selection: Little green bag.

 

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.