What does it take to be a good leader? This is a big question and one that has been answered with myriad complicated, 10, 25, 50 steps plans and frameworks but it doesn’t have to be so complex.
Over many years learning, observing, and working on it myself, I have found it really comes down to three key things.
To be a leader, you have to lead people to something. This means having some inspiring vision of what great or greater looks like. Think of Martin Luther King, he regularly spoke of what great looked like to him, “I have a dream … where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” Gandhi too had a vision, he wanted a free and democratic India where individual freedom and social responsibility were balanced and where freedom of religion and rights for the poor and outcast were cultural norms.
That being said though, visions don’t have to be as earth shattering and grandiose as those of MLK or Gandhi. They just have to be about something you see that could be better that you want others to see and experience too. It could be a vision of an office where everyone works together and freely shares ideas in pursuit of exceeding goals. It could be a factory that hums along like a well-oiled machine. It can be simple or complex. It can be world-changing or pedestrian. You just have to see something that is worth chasing. And, you don’t have to get out a platform and start proclaiming it, you can simply inspire others to reach what you see with the next two steps.
Modeling means you roll up your sleeves and live what’s needed to reach your vision. If we go back to MLK, we can see that he never asked things of his followers that he was not willing to do himself. He marched, went to jail, practiced nonviolence, and suffered innumerable indignities. Likewise with Gandhi, he marched, went to jail, fasted, practiced nonviolence, set up and lived in an ashram that was inclusive of all religions, social classes, and races. Great leaders live what they expect of others, they don’t just talk big talk and then go sit on a hill to watch, they dig in and do the work side by side with those who follow.
Last, great leaders support those who follow and further the work toward the vision. It can mean giving people the tools they need or providing training. It can mean demonstrating empathy and providing words of encouragement when things get tough. Support means help, it means service, it is ensuring those who are furthering the mission can get the job done. Thus, great leadership requires not being above others but being alongside them to help them climb the hill with you.
Using MLK and Gandhi as examples has problems though. Using big name, “celebrity” leaders is often difficult to relate to. MLK and Gandhi seem far off and unreachable. I can hear the words now, “I am no MLK or Gandhi.” And while that’s true, most of us are not in the league of giants like them, it doesn’t mean leadership doesn’t happen and isn’t needed in what might seem to be our more average lives. Here’s a real down-to-earth example of “everyday” leadership, and it comes from an experience I had years ago.
Back in the late 1980s, I was working in the restaurant business. I was the head bartender at an upscale fine-dining establishment and our head waiter was a man named Patrick. What I didn’t fully understand then but came to learn later was that Patrick demonstrated my three leadership attributes, and he did it in the ordinary world of a small restaurant most of you will never know anything about.
As far as the first attribute, Patrick never shouted out any vision, we, his co-workers, just knew what it was by what he did every day. It was through modeling and supporting that he inspired us to a vision of being the best fine-dining restaurant in town. He wanted us to be great at our jobs, treat customers really well, and be the best place for eating in the city.
Patrick was a master of his craft. He knew the menu inside and out. He never used the menu, he didn’t have to. He had it memorized. He knew every ingredient, he knew how things were prepared, and he could describe dishes like a reviewer in a gourmet-food magazine. When a new dish or a special dish came up, he went into the kitchen and asked to see it being prepared. He made sure that everyone working the shift knew how it was made and got a chance to taste it. He wanted everyone to be able to serve guests well by being an encyclopedia of everything the restaurant had to offer.
When it came to guests, Patrick was the best at reading people. When patrons sat down and they looked out of sorts or in bad moods, he immediately ordered up a couple of glasses of wine on the house to try and make the road smoother. When guests were celebrating, a glass of champagne was a norm. When we got what restaurant workers call “in the weeds” meaning overextended and stretched to our limit, Patrick would step in to help, whether that meant running other servers’ food to tables or taking orders when someone was tied up with another guest.
Put simply, Patrick inspired everyone in the restaurant to want to be the best they could be – because he worked to be the best he could be every day on every shift. We all knew his vision was for the restaurant to be the best and for the team to be the best. And because he modeled it and supported everyone else when they needed it, we all worked to live up to that. That. Is. Leadership! And it wasn’t changing the world but it was changing all of those who were privileged to experience it.
So, what does it take to lead? A vision that inspires either with words or with what’s demonstrated or both. A model of what it takes to get to that vision, and support to help people get the job done. We can all lead, and it doesn’t require titles, magic formulas, or a massive tribe of followers. It just takes a shining light that inspires you and others, the drive to consistently model the expectation, and the service mindset to help anyone willing to help you. That’s how to lead. Get to work.
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