I’m a big fan of good leadership. A big fan. And given the sheer number of leadership books, articles and coaches out there, we should be swimming in great leaders.
Alas, the quantity / quality euphemism holds true for leaders and leadership, too: a vast quantity of leadership advice in the form of books, articles, blogs, tweets, blurbs, and sound bytes does not seem to have led to a vast improvement in the quality of leadership. I might even argue that the plethora of leadership books and blurbs has contributed to the demise of good leadership, simply because reading a book (or twenty) about leadership does not a good leader make. Reading a book (or twenty) expounding on someone’s picture of good leadership might provide some interesting ideas about how to motivate one’s employees or how to connect with one’s customers. A leadership book might lead one to work through one of the “leadership activities” recommended among its pages, and might inspire quoting specific sentences, key concepts and phrases to one’s employees. But a leadership book (or twenty) does not make its readers good leaders.
Anyone can quote a book. Anyone can do exactly what an author recommends, and suggest (direct) others to do likewise. The good, even great, leaders who have inspired me to follow them, and to emulate them, have gone much further and much deeper in learning how to lead. They have done some incredibly difficult self-reflection and study so that they understand what motivates them, why they behave the way they do in various situations, and how to behave effectively in those same situations. They have sought out feedback from their loudest detractors, and have internalized and integrated that feedback into their everyday being and behaviors. They have admitted, repeatedly, that they have much to learn, and are open to learning daily. Perhaps most significantly, they have realized that leadership is as much about sharing and surrendering power as it is about demonstrating and exercising power.
The best leaders I’ve encountered – whether I’ve worked for them, wanted to work for them, watch others work for them and been green with envy – have first and foremost acknowledged that being a great (or even good) leader requires that one demonstrate the humility to admit that good leadership is HARD. Good leaders need assistance so that they can lead well.
On that note, let me just say that I also am a big fan of leadership coaching. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had an amazing manager/coach, and to have had a manager who, knowing that he probably was not a good coach for me, goes the extra mile (and pony up the budget) to get me a coach. I’ve been working with this coach for seven plus years now; it is the most significant career investment that someone made in me, but more importantly, that I’ve made myself. And make no mistake, engaging effectively, productively with a leadership coach is a BIG honkin’ investment – not just of dollars and of time, but also of mental and emotional energy. It takes a lot of both to look in the mirror that someone holds up and admit that what they are showing you ain’t all that you might have thought, or hoped.
But like quoting leadership books, anyone can get a leadership coach. Anyone can go to a leadership seminar or boot camp. Anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a leader or leadership coach. For me, the litmus test of a true leader is whether a person inspires those around him or her to stand taller, to strive to positively influence others, to give tough messages with the purpose of pushing another to grow the heck up. The true test of a leader isn’t the books s/he has read and can quote. The true test of a leader, to me, is someone who continues to look in the mirror and see what others see, and evolves from that image. And because the leader is continuously inspiring and helping to develop and foster greatness in others, what that person sees in the mirror is constantly becoming greater, too.