Being a Leader

Simon Marshall

Being a Leader

I recently came across this quote from John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, who was in office from 1825-1829. It reminded me that leadership is not a title, a role or a position; it is simply who you are being for others.

When I talk about leadership I ask the audience one simple question: If there is one thing that you need to be a leader, what is it?

I get many responses: purpose, vision, values, confidence, relationship building skills, even charisma – all good answers, but the one answer often missing is ‘a follower’.

Although the role of the follower is not often discussed, being a leader means that people choose to follow, not for the leader’s sake, but for themselves. This is because the world the leader describes is attractive to them, and because the example the leader sets shows them it is possible to achieve. People choose to follow leaders that inspire them to be more and accomplish things they would not accomplish on their own.

Simon Sinek first expressed this point very eloquently in his TED talk of 2009, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. He also says that ‘people don’t buy What you do, they buy Why you do it’. People connect most powerfully with the Why – the cause, belief, the very reason an organisation exists. As guardians of the Why, leaders create or co-create a vision, a picture at a moment in time, that is a powerful representation of the organisation delivering on its Why. If this is communicated in a way that people choose to get involved, we say they are impelled into action, not compelled, i.e. they are choosing to be a follower because they believe what the leader believes.

There is much talk about leadership, but one way to learn the most about it is to notice when it is present. A simple test to find out if it’s present is to ask, are people choosing to follow because they believe in the same things the leader does? If the answer is yes, we know that the first stage of leadership has begun.

It is also interesting to imagine how an organisation would operate without the rules and procedures and, most significantly, without organisational hierarchy; all of these exist mainly to compel people into action, i.e. to manage and not lead people. If these were removed, would people choose to follow the senior managers? Would they continue to operate using the rules and procedures? Would people see these as enablers of the organisation’s Why, or their own individual Why? (By the way, I am not advocating abandoning all these essential management processes, I am just using this enquiry to better understand the relative balance between management and leadership in any particular organisation.)

Leadership is thus about creating a future – a future that wouldn’t happen except for people saying it will and acting consistently with it in every moment. Leadership is about disrupting the norms, bringing into existence something that would not otherwise exist. Leadership is concerned not with what currently exists, but what’s possible, for everyone.   Thus leadership is quite simple: it is about creating a clarity of Why, a vision of the future sourced from Why, and enroling people in the journey. We call this ‘Moving Forward from the Future’.

Simon is the author of Why-Based Organisational Development and WhyNot’s Leadership Curriculum, and has extensive experience in leadership development, cultural and organisational change and executive coaching.

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