While some members of the American Senate were voting for a ‘skinny’ healthcare Repeal Bill which would have increased the number of people who are uninsured by 15 million (having demanded ironclad assurances that the legislation would never become law because they knew it made knew made ‘bad policy and horrible politics’) The Elders’ Mary Robinson and Graça Machel were in Tanzania offering help and advice to the government on a set of reforms to pave the way for universal healthcare.
While new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, delivered a vulgar, expletive-laden rant berating Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, the indefatigable Jimmy Carter was back working on the Habitat for Humanity building site, having been hospitalised having become dehydrated while “working in the hot sun.” Because Carter believes that decent housing is a basic human right.
And while the Boy Scouts’ Chief Scout Executive released a statement apologising for Donald Trump’s politically charged speech at the National Jamboree during which the President referenced parties thrown by “New York’s hottest people,” the segregationist builder William Levitt, and encouraged the booing of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Elders were promoting #WalkTogether – their global campaign to help bridge the global fault lines of division, hate and xenophobia.
These, on the back of a slew of similarly depressing incidents, got me thinking about how great leaders are made?
I know from my own 8 years as a CEO that leading is not easy. I had my fair share of critics, trolls and people who insisted on thinking the worst of me. Sometimes I was falsely accused of having the wrong motives and my integrity was called into question. On occasion, it wasn’t much fun, but this goes with the territory. Your role as a leader in the midst of all this criticism is to be clear-headed, to rise above it and to respond positively.
In those situations, sometimes I would joke that I was channelling my inner Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama. And whilst I was in part joking, I was also deadly serious. These were my choices for role models when I found leadership challenging.
Leaders Are Great Followers
Leadership requires knowledge. And one way knowledge is developed in my experience is by learning how to follow others effectively. This means choosing your role models and mentors wisely.
The greatest leaders of our time made a point of seeking out the very best mentors possible early in their career. Warren Buffet for example, literally harassed the economist Benjamin Graham to give him an opportunity to work under him. For very little pay. Buffet spent nearly a decade under his tutelage before going out on his own and setting up his first investment business.
One of the most important benefits of being a great follower is that this accelerates your learning. Those who learn to follow better are able to derive greater knowledge from other leaders.
Whilst the greatest leaders are often disrupters, they never try to re-invent the wheel. They understand that the world is full of people with the skills and knowledge they are looking for. And rather than learn everything from scratch, or rely purely on self-study, they understand the quickest way to learn is to emulate the best. And then build on what they have learnt.
Buffet hasn’t stopped looking to others for business wisdom. More than 50 years since he started Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett looks to leaders like Jamie Dillon of JP Morgan Chase for advice on how to best manage companies.
Great Leaders Are Empathetic
Knowing how to be a good follower brings important perspective. Followers understand what it’s like to be led, they know how to be an effective team player and they know what they expect from an exceptional leader.
This requires empathy, an essential leadership quality which is all too often lacking. Normally scoring high in online satisfaction, Netflix for example caused a firestorm when it announced pricing increases to its DVD+ streaming service. While the rationale for this price increase was entirely reasonable, it incurred customer wrath because the decision was communicated without empathy.
An important reason Theresa May lost her majority in the recent General Election was voter perceptions that she lacked empathy. This was borne out when asked about empathy in an interview with Vogue magazine; May “dismissed it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding).”
Being able to see the world from the perspective of your followers is critical in leadership. This in part helps to explain why Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree backfired so badly.
Both Leader and Follower
Paradoxically to be an effective leader, you need to be both a leader and a follower. Just like great religious and philosophical leaders practised what they preach, the same is true of leaders of all callings.
Great leaders wear their authority lightly. They spend most of their time serving their teams, empowering their employees to do their job, relying on their advice and following them when necessary. They are what John Maxwell calls ‘Level 5’ leaders, who grow themselves whilst developing others within the organisation simultaneously.
At the start of her leadership of Xerox, former CEO Anne Mulcahy experienced a crucible moment when she discovered the company was close to bankruptcy. ($18 billion in debt with just a week’s cash in the bank). To turn the tanker around, she asked her team for their support and empowered them to work with her to bring the company back to profitability.
When it comes to role models, I look to people like Bill George, Paul Polman, Richard Branson, Chrissie Rucker and Liz Earle, all of whom stand tall in their values, and lead with integrity.
Join The Conversation
Question: Who are your role models and why? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.
Explore These Additional Resources
Did you miss?
- Magnanimity: The Quality That Made Mandela An Exceptional Leader
- The Boots Apology That’s Hard To Swallow
- 7 Business Lessons From My Years As A CEO
- How To Build A Business Like Liz Earle
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I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, to help my clients to achieve their goals.
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