Is Leadership Over-glorified? A Blog by KEC Executive Director Jim Biggs

Today’s post is from KEC’s own fearless leader, Jim Biggs.  The original article was published recently on the Knoxville News Sentinel’s website and is now posted here with the video Jim references below.  Enjoy!  – joy

In a 2010 TED talk, tech and music entrepreneur Derek Sivers showed a grainy video of a guy dancing shirtless at a music festival [who attracts a flash mob of fellow attendees to dance with him] to illustrate how leaders create movements.  His conclusion:  Leadership is over-glorified.

Sarcasm aside, his point isn’t (just) that in an era where CEO’s have become celebrities, we too often confuse ego, bombast and bad hairdos for real leadership.  Nor is the point that leadership isn’t critically important to our success – as individuals, as organizations, as a community or a nation.

Rather, emphasizing the need to nurture followers as equals, Sivers observes that ‘following’ can be an underappreciated form of leadership.  Or in his memorable words, “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”  For entrepreneurs who are leading startups, there are a number of important lessons on there:

Leaders lead.  To paraphrase Dean Martin, “You’re nobody ‘til somebody follows…”  Look behind you occasionally – if no one is there, you’re not a leader.  For new companies (or any company, really), this applies to two groups:

–        Team:  startups need to be able to bring in great people who share your vision and belief in the business you’re trying to build.

–        Market:  businesses need to persuade customers (hopefully lots of them) to use, consume or otherwise take advantage of your product or service.

If either one of these two ‘followers’ isn’t with you, the startup is in trouble.

Leaders are not just bosses.  Titles don’t automatically designate leadership – the person who is being followed is the leader, regardless of position.  Titles generally come with defined roles and scripted contributions.  They are often inflexible, even stifling, especially in a constantly changing startup environment.  Leadership is earned, not bestowed, and comes through in every aspect of the way you conduct yourself.

Leaders collaborate.  Whether you’re talking about co-workers or outside groups, effective leaders look for a way that everyone can be successful.  They recognize that no one individual or organization can do everything.  Look for ways to partner with others who share your vision and goals.  Leverage skills in the community that complement what you bring to the table.  The result will be a win for everyone.

Leaders work, hard.  How many times have you prioritized a list of action items, only to realize the first item was going to be a bear?  That’s not the time to re-prioritize!  Leaders stay focused and on task, and get the hard stuff done first.

Leaders take risks.  Starting a new business is incredibly difficult, and many don’t survive.  Joining a new venture is also risky (many don’t survive…), making that ‘first follower’ equally courageous.  Often you’re working with an untested product in an untested market.  Leaders need to be bold and decisive, set high goals and then act.  This doesn’t mean acting rashly or impulsively.  Collect the information you can, understand the risk you are taking and make an informed decision.  Then evaluate the results and use that data to improve your next decision.  But decide – don’t let perfect be the enemy of good (and done).

Part of taking risks, is being willing to fail.  And you will fail, likely more than once.  But leaders are persistent and resilient, and have the capacity to rally others to keep trying as well.

Leaders listen.  Like following, listening is greatly underappreciated.  Strong leaders recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and seek them out by asking questions and weighing the responses. This can only be done by in a vacuum.  Leaders always look to bring in people smarter than they are who are encouraged to challenge thinking and assumptions.  In short, they are willing to be vulnerable for the good of the organization.

Leaders grow.  Darwin Smith, the CEO who transformed Kimberly-Clark in the mid-seventies, humbly summed up his experience leading that company through massive transition by noting that “[he] never stopped trying to be qualified for the job.”  Leaders aspire to continue learning how to improve – themselves, their organization and the people they serve.  Jack Welsh may have summed it up best:  “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Leaders empower others.   Bill Gates famously recognized this trait, and gave Microsoft employees the opportunity to build within their organization.  As with ‘growth’ above, leaders are most effective when they work to make others succeed.  Or as Ralph Nader notes, “The function of leadership is to create more leaders, not more followers.”

Leaders inspire.

On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis.  Riots broke out across the country – D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City all went up in flames.  Robert Kennedy Jr. received word of the assassination minutes before a scheduled campaign rally in Indianapolis.  Rather than cancel the appearance, he climbed on the back of a flatbed truck to speak with a largely black audience that had not heard the news.  He spoke without notes or preparation, showing honesty and vulnerability, even quoting Aeschylus off the cuff.  It would have been easy to think him nuts.  But Kennedy invited the crowd to join him in pulling the nation through a dark hour, empowering them to lead their communities toward a better future.  Indianapolis didn’t burn that night.

Some leadership is not over-glorified.

– Jim Biggs, October 2015