Globally we spend $366 billion annually in the pursuit of ‘Great Leadership’. Academics and consultants are studying CEOs that have delivered outlier results, organisations experimenting with new organisational models and sports teams that have outperformed their rivals. Businesses are paying top dollar for experts to come in and share the findings from the above, work with their teams and help them understand what they can do to improve. Individuals are swamped with literature, videos and courses that all claim to have cracked the code of what makes ‘great leadership’. However, it is all in pursuit of a myth.
There is no such thing as ‘Great Leadership’.
We can all point to examples of individuals who have undoubtedly offered outstanding leadership. These are all valid. Be it Bob Chapman at Barry Wehmuller, Jack Welsh at GE, Ricardo Semler at Semco and the countless others frequently quoted back over the past decades. We could even look across the universe of great leaders and find common characteristics. Many of these are admirable and undoubtedly correlated to high performance. Despite all this, there is no such thing as ‘Great Leadership’.
Outstanding leadership isn’t about emulating others or learning from a ‘how to’ perspective. There is no formula or script to follow that will bring success. There is a reason that the pursuit of ‘Great Leadership’ is a billion-dollar industry – the answer is not there to be found. The stories of great leaders are all stand-alone. They are leaders who have been in tune with their passion and purpose (individually and organisationally) and have honoured their commitments. They’ve calibrated their approach to the circumstances they faced and their role. Given the context, they’ve been clear on who they needed to be for their people, what outcomes had to be delivered by when, what and how to communicate, what actions to take, how to hold their teams accountable, etc.
In other words, what we observe from the outside as extraordinary leadership is entirely circumstantial. We can’t transmute the acts we see into a reference model that we can adopt and expect similar results in our unique circumstances. If we aspire to become a great leader, we need to look elsewhere.
The key to exceptional leadership is authentic, deep inquiry. We need an open and inquisitive mind and courage to be straight with ourselves. It requires the willingness to ask probing questions of oneself and others and truly hear what is being said in response. Where to start with this inquiry? Questions like:
- What is truly important to me and the people I rely on?
- What shapes my view of myself, others and the world around me?
- Am I truly listening to what is being said to me; and even to what is being said, but not spoken?
- What context can I create that will cause people to act consistently with what we are committed to?
- What interpretation am I stuck inside of that is getting in the way of me powerfully moving forward?
- Where am I making myself and/or others wrong?
- Who must I be as a leader to generate a potent environment for others to flourish and perform?
The list of questions that a leader might ask themselves may be long and is of course dependent on the circumstances. The answers to questions like these may change from conversation to conversation, whilst some may stay the same for long periods. The key is to be continuously checking in. Relying on an external reference to emulate can make us blind to what is happening around us and get us stuck. However, asking ourselves questions opens the playing field, reminds us to tune in to ourselves and our surroundings, and gives us choices.
So, there is no such thing as ‘Great Leadership’. I.e., there are no absolute ‘best practices’ that we can emulate. We must tune into ourselves, others and our environment to discover what each moment requires.
If you aspire to elevate your leadership, seek people who ask great questions. Seek out people who help you reflect to reveal what is going on for you and your team, and who help you create safe spaces for honest inquiry. There are many great teachers out there worth listening to, in as much as they cause you to ask probing questions. It was once said: “Great leaders are distinguished through the quality of the questions they ask.”