When I hear the term "great leader," I’m reminded of two passages from management literature that have influenced my thinking about leadership and my approach to coaching leaders. First, from Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton’s Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense:
Leaders can and do make an important difference in organizational and group performance, although the effects are not as large as usually assumed nor as important as many other factors. It seems clear that leaders have some chance of making things somewhat better, but they can also make things much worse... This all suggests that avoiding bad leaders may be a crucial goal, perhaps more important than getting great leaders.
First, do no harm is as important in organizational life as it is in medicine, and any discussion of great leadership should recognize the risks posed by bad leadership. The second passage is from Pfeffer’s Leadership BS:
Much of the oft-repeated conventional wisdom about leadership is based more on hope than reality, on wishes rather than data, on beliefs instead of science. The shibboleths of modern leadership loom large and influence how people navigate their careers, often to their detriment. And people’s uncritical acceptance of the feel-good stories told about leadership prevents them from apprehending reality and taking action to make things better.
So I firmly believe that caution and skepticism are essential when exploring the question I pose above: What do great leaders do? And yet there’s a tremendous desire to understand potential answers to this question—I see it in my coaching practice every day, particularly with first-time leaders who are concerned that their lack of experience will cause them to make a misstep.
I’m not a social scientist--I’m an executive coach and a practitioner in the field. I can only answer this question on the basis of my empirical experience over the course of a decade of coaching leaders and teaching MBA students at Stanford. But in parallel with that work I’ve also sought to explore the findings of researchers like Pfeffer and Sutton and integrate all of this information into a philosophy that’s internally coherent while being open to new ideas.
So it was in this spirit that I addressed to a similar question posed in 2013 by Gemba Academy co-founder and former Kaizen Institute CEO Jon Miller: What is the definition of 'great leader? At the time I responded via tweet, and I was recently reminded of this exchange and decided to expand on those 140-character answers.
So what do great leaders do?
1. Great leaders support others’ development as leaders, which may require allowing them to fail.
In 2009 I heard Bill George say, "We need to disavow ourselves of the notion that leadership is power over other people. Leadership capacity is the ability to empower other people to step up and lead," and this idea has deeply informed my approach to coaching over the last decade. Our ability to scale up as a leader is contingent on our capacity to develop others, and my clients know they'll be more successful (and that their efforts will be more sustainable) if they're able to help employees grow into their full potential as leaders, rather than simply providing oversight and direction. But people ultimately learn to lead through active experience, not passive study, and this requires allowing them to make mistakes, to suffer setbacks, and even to fail outright.
This can be daunting; failure has consequences, and it’s tempting to mitigate the risks by offering more explicit advice or even by taking over responsibility for the task. But this inevitably slows down the process of helping that person develop as a leader, and if we succumb to this temptation too often we ultimately undermine our own leadership effectiveness as well.
And yet if we ignore those consequences we’re telling ourselves a feel-good fairy tale of the type that Pfeffer rightly skewers above. There are times when leaders must prioritize the effective accomplishment of a task over the growth of an employee. There are people who are not going to progress much further beyond their current capabilities, and leaders shouldn’t invest extensive time and effort in their development. And there are moments when leadership requires the assertion of directive authority, and any aspiring leader who’s too uncomfortable with power to wield it effectively will find themselves at a disadvantage.
2. Great leaders accept their unique responsibility to embody the culture and walk their talk every day.
Leaders operate under a spotlight at all times. Every action they take is scrutinized and measured against their statements—and any gaps between the two are observed carefully (and often held against them.) This derives from the symbolic role leaders play—they’re not simply individuals fulfilling a set of responsibilities. For better and for worse, we view leaders as embodiments of our organizations and institutions, and as a result we expect them to act in alignment with the culture they claim to represent.
This can come as a surprise to first-time leaders. They know that leadership comes with symbolic duties at certain key moments—when addressing the entire organization, or at ceremonial events, for example. But they often fail to appreciate that a leader’s symbolic function is actually a constant 24/7 responsibility. Interactions that are mundane or even trivial from a leader’s perspective are laden with significance from the point of the view of other parties, and leaders need to bear in mind that their every utterance and gesture may be closely examined to determine its consistency with their stated values and aspirations.
The constant scrutiny that comes with the symbolic aspect of leadership can be exhausting, and, at the same time, the deference that accompanies it can generate an inflated sense of self-importance. Ineffective leaders lose sight of the personal toll this process takes on them and fail to maintain relationships with people outside the scope of their authority—peers, friends, or even coaches like me. Leaders need the freedom to temporarily step outside of their symbolic role and simply be themselves as individuals in a way that’s rarely possible with employees or other stakeholders.
I’m not suggesting that leaders should act disingenuously or that their embodiment of the culture is a charade. But one of the fairy-tales of contemporary leadership literature that Pfeffer is critiquing is the idea that leaders should “act authentically” in a way that privileges their personal sentiments and ignores their symbolic responsibilities. This is a crude and simplistic understanding of authenticity that fails to appreciate the disciplined effort, strategic forethought, and command of nuance that are necessary for truly authentic self-expression in a leadership position.
3. Great leaders trust in themselves while also being committed to continued personal development.
As I’ve written before, if we don't ask ourselves, “How could I have done better?” we don't learn, and we don't grow. And yet if we don't stop asking how we could have done better and simply accept our performance (and ourselves), we become paralyzed by our inability to let go and fail to move forward. This is an extraordinarily difficult balance to maintain, and I’ve seen often seen leaders over-emphasize one side or the other.
Bad leaders are simply too stubborn, egotistical, or defensive to engage in meaningful self-development. They’ve already learned what they need to know about themselves, and they aren’t interested in going any further. And they’ll succeed as long as the environmental conditions are favorable or their luck holds out, but they’ll be incapable of adapting to change or surviving a string of setbacks.
But leaders who take the opposite approach—who are ferociously committed to self-analysis and perpetually strive to better themselves—can fall short of greatness as well, albeit for different reasons. Sometimes their appetite for personal development is rooted in a lack of self-confidence that they’ve been able to overcome at earlier stages of their career, but which prevents them from taking necessary risks as the stakes get higher. And sometimes it springs from a lack of self-compassion, and their inability to care for themselves appropriately is unsustainable at senior levels of management where no one empathizes with the leader’s difficulties.
As with so much of human performance, the key is to cultivate both a growth mindset, which allows us to view our mistakes as learning opportunities, and to simultaneously develop a sense of trust in ourselves, to truly accept ourselves—with all our inevitable flaws and imperfections. We have to be able to see those flaws and imperfections clearly to be able to address them when necessary—and we have to be able to ignore them, to set them aside and not allow them to distract us.
4. Great leaders know when to make their presence felt and when to get out of the way.
There are many different ways for leaders to fail here. Some leaders never get out of the way, either because of a lack of trust in their people, or because they feel they have to be present to add value, or because it inflates their ego to be involved, and they haven’t yet learned to manage this need. Most high performers prefer a degree of independence, and overly involved leaders can find themselves having difficulty recruiting and hanging onto their best people, which can lead to a vicious cycle of micro-management. As Pfeffer and Sutton say in Hard Facts, “Sometimes the best leadership is no leadership at all,” and as I learned many years ago from my fellow coach and Stanford colleague Collins Dobbs, “Some of the best interventions are the ones you don’t make.”
But leaders can easily err on the opposite side as well, in part because of the popularity of one of the feel-good stories of current management literature, the idea of the post-heroic leader. This model has been championed by Stanford’s David Bradford and Harvard’s Bill George, two management thinkers who’ve had a significant influence on my work and my approach to coaching, and I believe it has much to recommend it. Contemporary knowledge workers often have far better information at their disposal and know more about the task at hand than their managers, and the model of “leader as expert” simply no longer applies in many organizations, particularly in technical disciplines. And in theory a post-heroic leader should be able to adopt a number of alternative models better-suited to the situation: leader as coach, or leader as facilitator.
But in practice I’ve seen a number of leaders take the post-heroic approach to a counterproductive extreme, and the result is a hesitant, indecisive and even fearful lack of leadership presence that leaves employees feeling uncertain and lost. This isn’t an accurate expression of the post-heroic model as conceived by Bradford, George, and others—it’s a caricature. And yet there’s something about the way that this model has been framed in the management literature and in business school programs like Stanford’s that seems to lend itself to this fundamental misunderstanding.
While leaving plenty of room for others, great leaders know when to assert their authority and act with power. This need not entail a full-blown return to heroic leadership, with the leader as all-knowing arbiter. But it does require a level of comfort with authoritative and directive behaviors, an ability to summon and employ a forceful interpersonal presence, and a high degree of emotional intelligence (because a little heroic leadership can go a long way.)
5. Great leaders add value by leading, not doing, and focus on motivating, challenging and supporting others.
This sounds almost silly--of course leaders lead. But do they really? Most people reach leadership positions by virtue of their competence as individual contributors, and it can be a challenge to step out of their comfort zones as high-performing doers and become actual leaders whose performance relies on the competence of others. Failing to make that transition results in the illusion of effectiveness, a trap for any leader, in which they’re working harder and harder while falling further behind.
A few years ago I had a CEO client who realized that he and his management team were both operating at an unsustainable pace and were failing to make important structural improvements in the business because there were constantly reacting to crises. As he characterized the situation, they were stuck fighting fires, and they needed to transform themselves into fire marshals who could prevent the fires from starting in the first place.
But he also realized that his own management style was part of the problem—he was holding on to too many tactical responsibilities, which not only made him a bottleneck but also served as a bad example for his senior managers. He concluded that at this stage of the company’s development, any effort he was expending on technical tasks, both financial and technological, wasn’t just a waste of time—it was actually destroying value. He delegated these tasks to his team and coached them through the process of doing the same with their direct reports, ultimately freeing up a tremendous amount of capacity for strategic leadership that had previously been focused on tactical execution.
It was a powerful example of what Pfeffer and Sutton, in Hard Facts, describe as a systemic approach to leadership:
Leaders often have the most positive impact when they help build systems where the actions of a few powerful and magnificently skilled people matter least. Perhaps the best way to view leadership is as the task of architecting organizational systems, teams, and cultures—as establishing the conditions and preconditions for others to succeed.
To quote Jon Miller's concise summary of my original tweets, "great leaders are secure, succeed through others, promote learning, and lead by example." I'd also suggest that they follow Pfeffer and Sutton's guidance to "maintain an attitude of wisdom and a healthy dose of modesty" and first, do no harm.