There has been much talking about our current political leaders recently, and the discussion whatever one's political shadings, has certainly raised a number of very interesting issues. Many of you know very well that I am not only working with different kinds of leaders as part of my professional expertise and business but I am also passionate about anything to do with this issue of leadership. So let me share some thoughts. I would invite any comments, but kindly avoid "party" politics please, as the issues at stake are far wider and touch us all as business people let alone as human beings.
1. Who is a leader?
I know that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of different definitions around and I am not here to create a new one. But let me try and throw something into the open: when is a person a leader? Is it by the number of "followers" that he/she has? Is it by the kind of actions that he/she takes? Is it by what he/she says and motivates to do or is it by the personality traits that he/she displays (what we generally call charisma)?
The fact is that I believe that there is no one definition that covers all the possible permutations of a leader. Let me give you some practical examples using well known individuals. How many people followed Jesus? 12. How many people followed Gandhi? At some points of his life the answer would have to be none or very few whilst at others there would be millions. So numbers of followers is not a true identification of leadership or at least not a sufficient one.
What about the actions that a leader takes? Well that was certainly the effect of someone like Mother Theresa or even someone like Richard Branson. What this tells me is that personal involvement and personal action can be a good indicator of leadership.
What about someone like Saddam Hussein or Hitler? They had millions of followers but the actions they inspired and motivated were evil and destructive. On the other hand Gandhi was able to motivate people to do good. What this tells us is that leaders can motivate both towards evil just as much as good. Ability to motivate either way can therefore be a good indicator or of leadership.
And what about this almost mystical concept that we call charisma? Is this the real answer to our question? The reality of the matter is that you can be a leader but have very little charisma. Or in other words the ability to persuade and enthuse someone to do something whatever the cost. When we look at the world around us both in business and the wider world we certainly see some very charismatic leaders. What makes them so? I believe that it is the fact that they display the "right" combination of qualities, skills, courage and determination to even go against public opinion and follow an idea to the very end, whatever the personal and wider cost.
Now all this leads me to another issue.
2. Leadership vs Democracy
In other words, what is the relationship between democracy and leadership? Can democracy and true leadership go hand in hand? Examples from history would provide evidence both for and against this argument. Certainly the approval of the crowds does make a difference in the acceptance of orders and commands; but does this make the person giving the orders a true leader? With this in mind is Mugabe a true leader or is he rather a clever manipulator of public dissatisfaction for personal gain (whatever that may be)?
The fact is that we live in an age, and in a country, thinking of the UK, where legality and the value of democracy has been elevated to almost the value of a god with the obvious results that we have lost the right balance. It is interesting that in many traditional tribes, though not all of them by any means, the will and decision of the leader is what determines the actions to be taken with or without the approval of the crowds. In other societies exists a process of consultation and sharing the "details process" but again even in such societies it is the leader who has the final word and who therefore makes the final decision.
What all this points out is actually the fact that we should ask a different question: does a leader need the approval of the crowd to be a leader? The answer from the evidence is clearly pointing to a negative answer. Having said that, certainly it would be more "popular" for the leader to see the approval of the crowd so as to guarantee a wider and more open acceptance of his/her decisions. But that is by far a needed requirement of leadership. Actually, the more charismatic leaders are, the less they need the approval of crowds.
What all this says to me is that a true leader often has very similar characteristics to an entrepreneur (hence my working in this area too) and to a pioneer or a creator of new ideas or products. A true leader needs to be determined, single-minded, clearly focussed and with a great willingness to achieve. He/she also needs to be self-confident, willing to take risks (even at a personal level), deaf to the critics and accusers, respectful of other people's opinions but not necessarily bound by them in his/her decisions.
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