Last week I watched Elizabeth Holmes report to prison for an extended sleepover and it reminded me of a narrative we now see repeated in America over and over. At one time Holmes had a reported net worth of $4.5 billion based on the market value of her company Theranos, Inc. In 2014 Forbes labeled her “the world’s youngest female billionaire.” Her face graced the cover of Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Bloomberg Businessweek, The PBS Women’s List, the Time 100, named Woman of the Year by Glamour, and Stanford Business lauded her exploits just to name a few. Some even anointed her “The Next Steve Jobs,” and she did her part to play the role by dressing like Jobs every day, even down to the black turtleneck.
Holmes story reminds us that in America we see a void in political, business, and spiritual leadership. This shortage is contributing to serious issues within our society. When we do not understand leadership, we tend to migrate toward demagogs and fraudsters who many believe are leaders. This is dangerous behavior and a perilous trend. Today we often mistake internet stardom for leadership because our younger generation has little knowledge of what real leadership looks like.
It is sad to say, but I believe I have only seen two real leaders in the Presidency in my lifetime. My life has now spanned fourteen Presidents, and this is a miserable commentary on our collective judgement as voters. Worldwide, the President of the United States is always referred to as the “Leader of the Free World.” Sadly, in recent years we have had people occupy the office who are elected for qualities other than leadership.
In business we have many examples of master manipulators like Holmes who give the appearance of leadership but lack other needed traits for long term success. Bernie Madoff gave the appearance of one who was a financial genius, available to only the wealthiest within society. For many, Sam Bankman-Fried looked to be a crypto genius, and people followed him like sheep to the financial slaughter. Hillsong Church in Australia looked to be the answer to faith for many until it and its founder and” leader” Brian Houston was rocked by scandal.
History shows us that some part of society is always searching for new leadership rather than becoming leaders themselves. When this is done without investigation of the professed leaders, it often leads to bad results. The individuals listed above appeared to be leaders, and some groups allowed them to lead. Their misdeeds are a shared responsibility because of both intentional deception and blind faith.
Throughout my career I had the opportunity to meet with and work for some outstanding leaders. Recently I thought over the learning steps I went through, and the traits of the people I consider to be role models for leaders. Not all of them showed every trait I believe gives us the best of the best, but they all had most of the key characteristics we will discuss here.
Genetic or learned?
There is a good debate to be had that inherited characteristics or qualities develop individuals into leaders. Charisma, characteristics, and behaviors are different than leadership but often these are confused. This confusion opens the door for charlatans to take advantage of others and allows them to prey on others through false trust.
A person can be financially or politically successful and be a terrible leader. Some occupations are performed individually by design, and a person can be extraordinarily successful with little to no interaction with others. Security analysts, stock traders, research scientists, programmers, and writers are all examples of professions where one can work without leading others. This does not define them as leaders, it defines them successful. Others might refer to them as “Leaders in their field.” but this is, by our definition, not leadership. Measurable personal accomplishment has always been important to societies, but that is different than leading people.
For sure some people are born with gifts that if they are placed in positions requiring leadership, make the role easier. Some of us are more comfortable in the company of others, doing public speaking, expressing opinions, and organization. These are often physical characteristics and behaviors, not leadership traits. A person extremely comfortable speaking in public who has a skewed view of the world can, like Adolph Hitler, appear to be leaders when they are nothing more than manipulators or tyrants. To a much lesser extent, such people also exist within major corporations, smaller companies, family businesses, and politics. These people are not leaders, they are people who reached positions of authority by coercion, manipulation, chance, or birthright. Confusing authority with leadership is common and dangerous.
What is leadership?
What do I mean by leaders and leadership in the context of this discussion? A leader is one who can create a vision, complete predefined goals and tasks, lead others to share their vision and take part in that process, and is willing to make the tough decisions necessary to reach the vision. Some would define this as management, but it is way more.
Management involves the organization of people to complete a set of tasks that lead to the completion of a specific goal. This might be the manufacture of a product, or the delivery of a service. Management may be a part of leadership when more than one person is needed to reach a goal, but it is not a necessity in all cases.
Real leadership appears when a person can combine five specific actions that result in group accomplishments. We are going to discuss these in detail in the next five installments of this discussion.
How I got here.
I was fortunate to meet both faith and businesspeople early in life that were leaders and showed an interest in my development. Family is always important, but I am leaving them out of this discussion for reasons of privacy. Several family members made a real difference in my development and without them, the other opportunities that came my way might not have had the reinforcement that I needed. It is late in life that we often recognize the importance of these steppingstones.
First, early in college I worked for a company and easily reached the goals set by the owner. He decided to enroll me in self-study courses produced by the American Management Association. This opportunity opened the door to my understanding of how management works in companies and corporations. This was quite different than the theories of management taught in most colleges by people who have never worked outside of academia.
Second, I had an opportunity to take part in a developmental program created by Dr. David McClelland at Harvard. McClelland’s work was in achievement motivation; can it be taught or is it only inherited? It was through this experience that I came to understand that anyone can be taught the process of achievement, but this is not necessarily the definition of leadership. McClelland’s work defined human needs for achievement, power, and affiliation and it made a lasting impression on my view of management versus leadership.
Third, I met a corporate executive with a particular style of leadership that at first seemed unique or at least difficult to emulate. This individual was a true leader and over the years I, and others, began to understand that we were working in a very unusual environment where there was a real vision and sense of purpose. From him we learned that leadership can be a defined process, you just needed to know the steps.
Fourth, I interacted with a faith leader that was so well grounded in his faith that it defined who he was. He taught us the value and role of faith in leadership, and the value of communication.
It is these incremental learning steps that helped me formulate this discussion. But this discussion also feeds into the series titled The Sum of Our Decisions. We must understand and accept that life builds on every decision we make. Recognizing and taking advantage of the opportunities that come our way is important in leadership, in decision making, and in accomplishing your goals.
Stay tuned for further discussion.
My thanks to KalenHawke for help with editing this article.