How and Why to Be a Leader (Not a Wannabe)
We're in the midst of a Great Dereliction — a historic failure of leadership, precisely when we need it most. Hence it's difficult, looking around, to even remember what leadership is. We're surrounded by people who are expert at winning — elections, deals, titles, bonuses, bailouts, profit. And often, we're told: they're the ones we should look up to — because it's the spoils and loot that really matter.
But you know and I know: mere winners are not true leaders — not just because gaming broken systems is nothing but an empty charade of living; but because life is not a game. It isn't about what you have, and how much — but what you do, and why — if you're to live a life that matters.
Leadership — true leadership —is a lost art. Leaders lead us not to a place — but to a different kind of destination: to our better, truer selves. It is an act of love in the face of an uncertain world.
Perhaps, then, that's why there's so little leadership around: because we're afraid to even say the word love — let alone to feel it, weigh it, measure it, allow it, admit it, believe it, and so be transformed by it.
Wannabes — who I'll contrast leaders with in this essay — are literally just that: wannabes. They want to be who leaders are, but cannot: they want the benefits of leadership, without the price; they want the respect, dignity, and title of leadership, without leading people to lives that matter; they want the love leaders earn, act by painful act, without, in return, having the courage, humility, and wisdom to love.
When you think about chiefs, presidents, and prime ministers that way, I'd suggest that most of our so-called leaders are wannabes: those who want to be seen as leaders, without leading us anywhere but into stagnation, decline, fracture, fear, apathy, and comfortable, cheap pleasures that numb us to it all. Leaders — true leaders, those worthy of the word — do the very opposite: they lead us to truth, worth, nobility, wonder, imagination, joy, heartbreak, challenge, rebellion, meaning. Through love, they lead us to lives that matter. Wannabes impoverish us. Leaders enrich us.
So here are my six ways to start being a (real) leader — and stop being just another wannabe.
Obey — or revolt? Are you responding to incentives — or reshaping them? Here's the simplest difference between leaders and wannabes. Wannabes respond dully, predictably, neatly, to "incentives," like good little rational robots. They do it for the money and end up stifled by the very lives they choose. Leaders play a very different role. They don't just dully, robotically "respond" to "incentives" — their job is a tiny bit of revolution. And so they must reshape incentives, instead of merely responding to them. They have principles they hold dearer than next year's bonus — and so they think bigger and truer than merely about what they're "incentivized" to do. If you're easily bought off from what you really hold dear with a slightly bigger bonus, here's the plain fact: you're not a true leader.
Conform — or rebel? Are you breaking the rules or following them? The rules are there for a reason: to stifle deviation, preserve the status quo, and bring the outliers right back down to the average. That's a wonderful idea if you're running a factory churning out widgets — but it's a terrible notion if you're trying to do anything else. And so leaders must shatter the status quo by breaking the rules, leading by example,= so that followers know the rules not just can, but must be broken. If you're nail-bitingly following the rules, here's the score: you're not a true leader.
Value — or values? Why do people follow true leaders? Because leaders promise to take them on worthwhile journeys. The wannabe creates "value" for shareholders, for clients, for "consumers". But the leader creates what's more true, more enduring, more resonant: lives of real human worth. And they must do so by evoking in people values that matter, not merely "value" which is worthless. Which would you choose? In a heartbeat, most people choose the latter, because value without values is what reality TV is to a great book: empty, vacant, narrow, arid. If you're creating value — without setting values — you're not a leader: you're just a wannabe.
Vision — or truth? The wannabe sets a vision. With grandiloquent gesture and magnificent panorama, the vision glitters. The leader has a harder task: to tell the truth, as plain as day, as obvious as dawn, as sure as sunrise, as inescapable as midnight. Vision is nice, and many think that a Grand Vision is what inspires people. They're wrong. If you really want to inspire people, tell them the truth: there's nothing that sets people free like the truth. The leader tells the truth because his fundamental task is that of elevation: to bring forth in people their better selves. And while we can climb towards a Grand Vision, it's also true that the very act of perpetually climbing may be what imprisons us in lives we don't really want (hi, Madison Ave, Wall St, and Silicon Valley). Truth is what elevates us; what opens us up to possibility; what produces in us the sense that we must become who were meant to be if we are to live worthy lives — and one of the surest tests of whether you're a true leader is whether you're merely (yawn, shrug, eyeroll) slickly selling a Grand Vision, or, instead, helping bring people a little closer to the truth. And if you have to ask what "truth" is (newsflash: climate change is real, the global economy is still borked, greed isn't good, bankers shouldn't earn a billion times what teachers do, CEOs shouldn't get private jets for life for running companies into the ground, the sky really is blue) — guess what? You're definitely not a leader.
Archery — or architecture? Wannabes are something like metric-maximizing robots. Given a set of numbers they must "hit," they beaver away trying to hit them. The leader knows their job is very different: not merely to maximize existing metrics, which are often part of the problem (hi, GDP, shareholder value), but to reimagine them. The leader's job is, fundamentally, not merely to "hit a target" — but to redesign the playing field. It's architecture, not mere archery. If you're hitting a target, you're not a leader. You're just another performer, in an increasingly meaningless game.
love — or Love. Many of us, it's true, choose jobs we "love" over those we don't, readily sacrificing a few bucks here and there in the process. But this isn't love as much as it is enjoyment. Love — true love, the real thing, big-L Love — is every bit as much painful as it is pleasant. It transforms us. And that is the surest hallmark of a true leader. They have a thirst not merely for love — but to love; a thirst that cannot be slaked merely through accomplishments, prizes, or honors. It can only, only be slaked through transformation; and that is why true leaders must, despite the price, through the pain, into the heart of very heartbreak itself, lead.
We're afraid, you and I, of this word: love. Afraid of love because love is the most dangerously explosive substance the world has ever known, will ever know, and can ever know. Love is what frees the enslaved and enslaves the free. Because love, finally, is all: all we have, when we face our final moments, and come to know that life, at last, must have been greater than us if we are to feel as if it has mattered.
The old men say: children, you must never, ever believe in love. Love is heresy. Believe in our machines. Believe in operation and calculation. Place your faith in being their instruments. Our perfect machines will bring you perfection.
I believe lives as cold as steel will only yield a world as cruel as ice. I believe cool rationality and perfect calculation can take us only a tiny distance towards the heart of what is good, true, and timelessly noble about life. Because there is no calculus of love. There is no equation for greatness. There is no algorithm for imagination, virtue, and purpose.
Even a perfect machine is just a machine.
If we are to lead one another, we will need the heresy of love. We must shout at yesterday in the language of love if we are to lead one another. Not just to tomorrow, but to a worthier destination: that which we find in one another.
It's often said that leaders "inspire". But that's only half the story. Leaders inspire us because they bring out the best in us. They evoke in us our fuller, better, truer, nobler selves. And that is why we love them — not merely because they paint portraits of a better lives, but because they impel us to be the creators of our own.
Reproduced from Harvard Business Review