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Leadership ImageI like TED Talks. They are short nuggets of sometimes quite illuminating brilliance and, as I am passionate about understanding the nature of leadership, I am always looking around for snippets of information that help me question assumptions about leaders and leadership, so that I may understand it all a little bit better.

I watched one such TED Talk this week on leaders, given by management theorist Simon Sinek. You can see the full talk here: http://youtu.be/lmyZMtPVodo. It is 12 minutes long and Simon briefly talks about human and social development, primeval strategies for survival, and then elaborates on how that relates to the modern business world. Some questions occurred to me, such as “Where do the truly great leaders come from?” “What is it that leaders DO that inspire people to follow them?”

The wealth of material available about leadership styles, leadership traits, transformational leadership and a myriad of other descriptive terms and interpretations, demonstrates that there is no one size that fits all when it comes to describing or indeed defining what a leader IS.

For example, being a leader can’t simply be about giving directions; that in itself suggests an authoritative approach, and just being an authoritarian doesn’t make you a leader. People may do as they are told because you are the authority and are giving them instructions, but that doesn’t mean they will naturally follow you.

What struck me from Simon’s talk was that the fundamentals of being a leader seem pretty straightforward; fostering trust, making people feel safe and that they belong. But these in themselves are about promoting feelings towards you, which is pretty complex; you can’t simply demand that someone trusts you, they either trust you or they don’t. You cannot force people to willingly work together for you, they either want to or don’t. Yes, you can demand they work for you (for example, do the job or you will face penalties) but we are looking at leadership here, so let’s just park that thought.

The core questions, if indeed you see yourself as a leader, therefore focus on how you make people feel within your organisation; what is it you can do about your environment that creates security and trust in you, that ultimately encourages people to willingly follow you without having to demand they do so, and that doesn’t result in people focussing all their energy on protecting themselves, to the detriment of organisational growth? What can you do to create a social contract whereby your people are confident that you are not sacrificing them for your own interests?

Simon points out that great leaders don’t sacrifice their people to save the numbers, they would rather sacrifice the numbers to save the people. They provide their people with opportunities to try and to fail, supporting them in doing so, all to enable those people to achieve more than the leader could possibly do alone.

Being a leader is a choice, not a rank. When the people feel protected and supported by the leaders in an organisation, the natural response is to trust and cooperate. Once you choose to look after your people, and are prepared to sacrifice so that your people may gain, you will be demonstrating what it is to be a leader, and those very same people will increasingly be motivated to work collectively and collaboratively, to maximise their efforts to achieve your goals, provided you consistently show them, through your own actions, that they can trust and place their faith in you.

This, surely, is the essence of what a leader is.

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