We talk of leadership in glowing scenes of roaring crowds. Huge ones. Rippling banners and uplifting trumpets. Adulation. No rejection. No resistance. No nasty sniping.
That’s why we see so little of it.
If you’re actually going to do leadership, be ready. Leadership, real leadership, is mostly grubby, grinding, endlessly demanding of time, patience and effort. Then, in the midst of long stretches of unnoticed, unrewarded labor, unexpectedly there arises the moment at which great success is achieved . . . or great disgrace is earned.
Basically, your extraordinary personal investment is taken for granted.
You can’t be sufficiently disciplined, adequately tolerant, to invest all that time in supporting, guiding, educating, persuading . . . it takes to build a strong constituency of appreciative followers. You can’t – at the same time -- be sufficiently gifted and smart enough, properly alert and sensitive enough, politically attuned at the necessary level, to know when your moment has come.
Unless you’re a leader.
If you love authority, you’re out. They'll hate you. If you enjoy the limelight, you’re a performer, a lightweight. They may love to watch you, but they won’t follow you. If you declare yourself a leader, you’re a joke. It’s not up to you. If you expect appreciation, you’re really missing the point. When and if appreciation comes you didn’t anticipate it, because it never was part of your motivation.
You lead because you outwork expectations, beginning in the most mundane ways. Wherever your project, your organization, your people are, that’s where you are. You attend an awful lot of meetings. You tell people, early on and all along, what they need to know. You have, and you demonstrate, respect. You ask real questions, and you really listen when people talk. You reward significant input, and you ignore distraction and misdirection.
Man, does all this take time. Most of that time is low-octane investment of your presence and attention. It is draining. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to be a steadying, reinforcing backbone of the process. Alert, believing and always on message.
You need to do your homework, answer the questions and dissolve the objections. You must offer ideas and solutions – while empowering people to think and act in ways that get them to consciously engage their own initiative.
Oh, and this job requires what Peter Drucker called “the ‘C’ word – courage.” No really meaningful decision, he said, is easy. When it truly matters, there is going to be pain and a price is to be paid, no matter which way you go. People are going to be hurt. They're going to be angry. At you.
Probably no one will blame you if you dodge the firestorm.
But, if you do, they will never ever think of you as a leader.
OK, so you buy all that, and you’re ready to be a leader. How do you do it?