The hard truth about good leadership
If you think back to your childhood and the unique dynamic of playground politics, you’ll probably remember everyone jockeying to be “the leader.” I know that in my experience, everyone always wanted to play leadership roles, be in charge and tell the others what to do.
This desire to be “in charge” is the modern manifestation of a very ancient aspect of the human mind. We all want to ensure that we are fed first, that our families are safe, and that we survive no matter what.
Unfortunately, this primal perspective has endured and wormed its way into the modern understanding of leadership.
It can often feel like nothing has changed from our days on the playground. Everyone wants to be “the leader” and put themselves first.
This, however, isn’t leadership; it’s mere selfishness. True leadership requires sacrifice, humility, and a commitment to a higher cause.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a leader. No matter where you look today, authentic leadership seems to be in short supply.
There are a lot of “bosses” out there, to be sure. But what I struggle to see, in business, politics, and life, are true leaders who bring us together, inspire us to achieve great things, and bring out the best in us.
The hard, unforgiving truth is that leadership requires sacrifice. It’s painful, costly, and often thankless. I think it’s time that we as a society reminded ourselves of what leadership is all about.
You’re the first to sacrifice and the last to be rewarded
First and foremost, it’s important to establish the difference between leadership and ownership. While they’re often grouped, especially in entrepreneurship, they’re starkly different.
Ownership implies that there is a right to return on efforts and investment, plain and simple. As an owner or founder, you have a moral right to the fruits of a team’s labor. However, being an owner doesn’t mean you’re a leader.
Leadership doesn’t come from a title, cap table, or expectation; it comes from within.
Leadership is about doing what it takes to drive a team towards a greater goal, whether it be a social mission or desire to maximize the return for the company.
Real leaders put these goals above all else and are the first to sacrifice when times get tough. Of course, this is often easier said than done.
I’ve had to do this many times throughout my career. When cash gets low or the organization needed to invest in something for the greater good, my co-founder and I have been the first to forego our salaries to make it happen.
The logic behind this is simple: leaders eat last.
I wish I could say that there was some hidden benefit that we received by making a short-term sacrifice, but there isn’t.
Leaders have to love their company, just as a parent loves a child. If you and your family were trapped on a desert island with limited food, you’d feed your children first without question. The same logic applies to running a company.
It may sound trite, but it comes down to a form of agape love. For those that might not be familiar with the term, agape refers to a selfless love that transcends circumstance. It’s a love of the soul, complete in and of itself.
There’s no rhyme or reason behind it. It’s simply the wellspring that enables leaders to sacrifice no matter what.
Failure belongs to you
There’s a strong temptation to place blame on others when things go poorly. Often, this blame is fully justified. People make mistakes, let you down, and occasionally act in bad faith.
Good leaders, however, know the difference between blame and accountability. As the steward of the organization, every failure is your failure.
The person responsible for the problem must, of course, be held accountable for his or her actions. However, as a leader you cannot place the blame on anyone else; it falls squarely on your shoulders.
True leaders don’t have the luxury of blaming others. Instead, they own every failure and work tirelessly to fix problems no matter the source.
Success belongs to your team
Just as leaders must lay claim to all failures, they must also recognize that success belongs to their team.
This may seem counter-intuitive. Indeed, most positions of authority and leadership are, in fact, absurd on the surface.
Why would you take the blame for things you didn’t do and credit successes to others?
The answer is simple. Leadership, like parenting, is about something larger and more important than tallying wins and losses. It’s about guiding a group of people towards achieving a goal bigger than themselves.
Ego has no place at the table. Instead, good leaders serve those they are responsible for, no matter what. Self-promotion and credit-mongering is a sign of weakness, not strength. Leadership as I describe it may seem hard, uncompromising, and unrewarding. And it often is just that. However, like anything of value in this life, it is worth the struggle.