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Leaders go last in today’s world

Leaders go last in today's worldGoogle the word ‘leadership’ and you’ll find over 6 billion sites await you. Amazon alone offers over 40 000 books on the subject. Everywhere you turn these days, it seems that someone has coined a new catchphrase or uncovered the 11th essential step on the path to effective leadership. But sometimes all this leadership lingo and well-meaning insights can overcomplicate the matter.

What if leadership wasn’t meant to be so complicated? What if truly incredible leadership came from the kind of truths even children could understand? It was John Buchan who once said: “The role of a great leader is not to give greatness to human beings, but to help them extract the greatness they have inside them.”

Leaders are leaders, not because they declare it, but because they live it . Because they believe that legacy is measured, not by what you achieved on your own, but by what you activated to be achieved amongst those who come behind you. Most often, what you say and what you accomplish in your career will be forgotten. But the degree to which you unravel your own privilege to benefit another – that’s the stuff that lives on.

Especially as we strive to maintain the soaring pace of our success, leaders should be keen to fly in the face of conventionality and suggest we anchor our organisational culture into this solid conviction: if you want to lead, you’ll have to be willing to serve .

Serve to lead

When we think of strong leaders, stoic and steely stereotypes spring to mind. While it may have worked in the past to be an inflexible, intimidating leader, constantly armed with the perfect solution to every problem in their back pockets; the truth is, it just won’t work for the world we live in now.

To embrace the digital revolution, we need leaders who can double down on our humanity and unlock the best in others. ‘To lead’ is spelt ‘to serve’.

True leaders are those who walk humbly with people, who listen and infuse their language with ‘we’ over ‘I’ and are comfortable not being the smartest person in the room. Their leadership is almost accidental; it’s a by-product of their intentional choice to serve the people around them. They measure success by how effectively others’ abilities were activated and synchronised into the collective vision. And they never wear it as a badge, but bear it daily as a great responsibility.

Build to break

We live in a global world that is increasingly interconnected. So, it should come as no surprise that companies actively investing in diversity and leading inclusively are seeing better results. With wholly different vantage points feeding into the design process, we can design that airport, not just for efficiency, but to facilitate an experience that meets the needs of the entire community, and not merely a sliver representation of that community. Studies keep reminding us that diverse teams foster innovation, unlock global opportunities, produce happier, more productive employees, and build your bottom line.

That said, does diversity in fact prove profitable? A Catalyst study says companies with more women in executive positions are enjoying a 34% higher return to shareholders than those that don’t. Beyond this, companies with the most female directors are seeing a 26% higher return on invested capital than those with the least. And yet, in spite of this, women are grossly underrepresented, particularly in STEM industries worldwide. What responsibility does this leave us?

It’s important to understand when recruiting teams with diversity in mind, hiring to build is only one side of the coin; we’re also hiring to break. To break the barriers, both visible and invisible, which have traditionally hamstrung the kind of exceptional progress that only divergent cultures can achieve.

Beyond the obvious benchmarks, we need to start with the cultural ‘soil’ and tend to the unconscious biases that inevitably weaken the organisation’s ability to embrace diversity and gender equity. This means we talk straight and clear about inclusive strategies, and we invest in effective tools and programmes to unlock authentic awareness, relational transparency and accountability. We’re not interested in ticking boxes; we want to forge environments that in turn forge true societal change.

Go slow to move fast

In a current climate of breakneck change, speed to market seems to be everything. Facebook’s motto of ‘Move fast and break things’ sums up the idea that process might not be perfect, but creation speed is critical. The methodology behind the message has since been refined, but the heart of it remains: in today’s business world, you’ve got to keep your cutting edge sharp.

As leaders, we need to master the art of balance – of scaling down and sizing up, of getting bigger while getting leaner – in order to outwit disruption and continually present brilliant solutions to market. This balance requires extraordinary finesse to think and move on our feet, with a kind of fast lane agility.

But leadership is ultimately more than steering product and profit. It’s about people – and people move at an entirely different pace. A good leader is someone who knows how to differentiate between those speeds, and to recognise the relational realities impacting your workplace dynamics. A good leader can operate in both the fast and slow lane – prizing the privilege of developing, inspiring, and growing together over time with people, while navigating the fast-paced pressure of a changing world.

It’s been said: “Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader… they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role – always about the goal.” At the end of the day, true leadership is measured not by where you stood in front, but how you walked behind.

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3 replies »

  1. I love this take on leadership – so straightforward and so true. Sometimes to lead is to get out of the way. We should all learn when to step back so the right person can shine at the right time.

  2. Amazing article. I love the quote as extracted below:
    “The role of a great leader is not to give greatness to human beings, but to help them extract the greatness they have inside them.”

    I believe a great leader is one that involves and include everyone in his team/company. I feel in today’s world, with the ever so changing technology and requirements on what is cool, what must be done and what is efficient, many people are left behind both in the professional and social environment.

    Due to the pressure of being relevant, everyone is trying to catch-up including leaders.

    This begs me to question, shouldn’t a leader just use the old school system of leadership and steer, manage, and allow the relevant experts to run their specialists.

    Does a leader have to know the latest catch phrases and jargon, or should she/he focus on the people?

    Are we more disconnected than connected? and shouldn’t a leader steer us into Unity other than being disjointed? One can be driven, but if they are driven in the opposite direction, then “the cookie” will crumble.

    What does it mean to be a leader in this day and age?

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