Like many people, I’ve read multiple books on leadership. I’ve held and hold leadership positions.
I’ve pondered what makes a truly great, effective leader. Why some are effective and others aren’t.
One of my earliest and lasting impressions has been that not all leaders and situations are the same. What works for one leader may not work for another. What yields success in one circumstance may cause catastrophe in another.
I seemed to be the only one thinking this, as book after book I read offered checklists/attributes/traits/steps/formulas/characteristics/formulas/steps exhibited/adopted by all “true” and “great” and “effective” leaders.
Until I found General Stanley McChrystal’s new book he wrote with Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone titled, Leaders: Myth and Reality.
Note: If you’re not familiar with Stan McChrystal and don’t know why the hell you should take advice from him, TRUST ME - bro knows his stuff. He served for 34 years in the US Army, rising through the ranks to ultimately command all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan as a four-star general. Those four stars aren’t the gold stars they give out for just participating. He’s a leader through and through, and I highly HIGHLY recommend the book. He profiles 13 famous leaders from a wide range of eras and fields (Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, etc) to explore how leadership actually works in practice, and to challenge the myths complicating and clouding our thinking on this key topic. It’s actually a fun, interesting, and engaging read and is brilliantly and clearly written.
First of all, let’s talk about timing.
It’s often overlooked. What we call “leadership“ is often some combination of the leader’s actions, along with serendipity or other contextual factors that make for a positive result.
Leaders are separated not only by time and place, but also by what kind of leadership style would make them effective in their specific roles and place in time, moment, and framework. Yet too often we revert to vague assessments of “strong“ or “moral“ leaders, as though those things consist of formulas to be replicated in diverse contexts.
Spoiler alert: THERE IS NO FORMULA, y’all. Context matters!
This totally echoes my thoughts and observations over the years that never seemed supported by literature and guidance on the topic.
Leadership is never about the capacity and impact of a single person. We typically attribute far too much to an individual, the figurehead, the one with visibility, whom we can see and idolize, and ignore/dismiss/overlook the system as a whole and its contributing parts. (And as Stan the Man acknowledges, there are multiple reasons for the idolizing.) Yes, there are some phenomenal people out there, but none so amazing they singlehandedly drive a movement/achieve results/make it all happen. Turns out Coach was right: teamwork makes the dream work. There are many contributing factors to any event/movement/force/etc.
And to be judged fairly, leadership styles must be viewed not just at a specific time but also in a particular framework. The context of an enabling institution is often necessary to substantiate leadership.
The culture, the environment, the location, etc must all be examined. Consider the presence/degree of such factors as hostility, resistance, acceptance, apathy, sympathy, motivation, momentum, etc. The quality and quantity of resources.
It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of hero worship. It’s fun and energizing and helpful to cheer for a hero. Having someone to look up to and aspire to emulate.
We intentionally live with the gap between myth and reality [in part] because we like to do so.
Really think about that. Think about why we do that, and how it could benefit us.
The truth is that when we look closely, we see leadership as much in what our leaders symbolize as in what they actually accomplish.
A hero’s particular actions take on broader significance because the results they achieve resonate with group values.
It’s less about the tangible results they achieve and more about the expectations they defy and symbolism they uphold.
It’s for what they stand for, not just for what they do. Some leaders ride waves more than they cause them.
It is simpler and more satisfying to see the power contained within a single person. Do you relate to this, that it’s easier and more satisfying to have just one person represent all you strive for and admire and respect?
Rather than ask “ How do/did they lead” ask: “Why did they emerge as a leader?” and more specifically, “What was it about the situation that made this style of leadership effective?” These are questions I constantly ponder when studying leaders and their impact.
Beyond a taste for narrative and belief in our own causality (basically meaning we love a good story, and we love knowing we can have an effect on our lives), we also have a preference for simplicity. Boiling things down to distinct actions by a specific cast of prime actors is more relatable, and makes attributing success and blame easier. And most people prefer easier, right?
Reductionist explanations are somehow more satisfying than the complex, estranging, but usually more accurate accounts. Reality is complicated and even boring, and the mundane messiness can be unsatisfying. It can leave us craving the feel-good feeling. Life is more interesting and pleasing either when it is simplified or, in the other direction, sensational. And we’ll sooner accept the simple or sensational explanation over the accurate one.
Leaders are made powerful not so much by what they do, or even by, what they say, but by what their followers perceive they have to gain either individually or collectively by buying into what their leader is asking.
Those who emerge as successful leaders are not necessarily those with the best values, or the most comprehensive record of results, but those who align with sources of human motivation (political leaders are great examples of this!). If a leader can tap into fear or any of its derivatives, GAME OVER. Just add a “villian” and it’s a done deal. That leader instantly has devotees.
Fear is powerful and overrides reason/values/empathy/etc and activates people’s primal survival instincts. Just ask Hitler. He targeted people’s fear of marginalization/poverty/survival and vilified Jews, offering a group to blame. So just as the first line of the previous paragraph asserts, it’s all about connecting with human motivation. Did Hitler have the best values? I’mma go with NO. But he undoubtedly aligned with human motivation: Germans’ desire to survive and prosper.
Same with Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Even upon losing battles, his homies still rolled with him. Not because he had the best values (slavery is NOT COOL) or the best record (he lost key battles and eventually the war) but because he was tapped into the southerners’ motivation to maintain their way of live, human slaves and all.
This explains why followers might turn their attention to the hollow optimistic leader, or people dig the leader who talks a big game but who holds a weak record. Just as we look to heroes as a symbol of what could be, we look to leaders more generally because we hold out hope for an alternative future, or because we fear a coming threat, and the leader becomes the repository of that hope or the guardian against that fear. This is compelling, and even necessary, since hope and fear are both essential to pulling human society forward.
Leaders should understand leadership as a system, see themselves as the enablers of that system, and learn how to adjust their approach based on the needs of that system. It is the function of leadership to improve the overall progress of humanity. We should see our leaders as part of us, and ourselves as part of the solution. As I’ve said many times before, we’re all in this together.