Much has been written about what it takes to become a successful leader. There is no shortage of books, courses, and columns like this that purport to share the secrets of success.
If the concept of leadership has been so closely analyzed, scrutinized, and proselytized, why then are good leaders so incredibly rare?
Leadership, like so many things in life, looks simple from the outside. However, reality is far more gruesome, complex, and nuanced than you can imagine.
Everyone on the outside looking in seems to have the easy answers and secrets to success. Pundits and so-called experts love nothing more than to throw stones, proving their intellectual superiority without risking a thing.
Back when I was a consultant, long before starting BodeTree, I used to be one of these so-called “stone throwers,” mercilessly mocking businesses and their leadership from the outside and claiming to have all the answers.
Only after I found myself in the role as a founder, leader, and ultimately CEO did I see just how wrong I had been. Nothing was as simple as I once made it out to be, and the so-called “obvious” lessons proved to be anything but.
I still have a very long way to go on my leadership journey, but I do think I have improved over the years. Some of the lessons I’ve learned apply to specific situations; others are more immutable.
Upon reflection, I’ve settled on three undeniable truths that apply to virtually every leadership scenario.
Aggression is a sign of weakness, not strength
Despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, many people still believe that aggression and strength go hand-in-hand. I’ve found that young leaders are particularly susceptible to this fallacy.
Early on in my career, I felt that I had to be aggressive, boisterous, and unrelenting to be taken seriously in the marketplace. This aggression, however, was a sign of my weakness. The behavior stemmed from my lack of confidence, fear, and insecurity.
Fortunately, as I’ve matured (both as a person and as a leader), I’ve come to realize that quiet gentleness, empathy, and understanding are the true hallmarks of strength.
As with most things of value in life, the effects of the gentle approach take time compared to the path of aggression. It’s possible that leaders who demonstrate true strength of character may appear to lose ground to those who take the easier path.
Time, however, is the great equalizer. Those who take the easy way out and lead through fear, coercion, or sheer force, eventually end up victim to their weaknesses.
On the other hand, strong leaders who show care, empathy, and gentleness build loyalty, trust, and admiration. Over time, this track record of doing the right thing, coupled with a loyal following can lead to world-shaking success.
Personal dissonance destroys teams
Leaders of all levels must believe in their product, company, team, and vision to succeed. This belief must come from your very core, lest it comes across as disingenuous.
In the past, I’ve had leaders on my team who did not believe in our mission, yet pushed forward in their attempts to motivate the people in their charge. It never worked out.
The reason here is that personal dissonance—the act of feeling one way but acting another—is something that bleeds through every aspect of our being. One cannot simply will oneself to believe, nor can anyone truly motivate, guide, and encourage others if they maintain their doubts.
Leaders must be consistent, honest with themselves, their clients, and their teams, and comfortable in their skin. Only then can their underlying passion shine through.
If you don’t believe in your product, idea, or team, quit now. It’s as simple as that. If you think you can fool yourself going forward, you’re wrong. Such a course of action is folly.
Good leaders take all the blame, none of the credit
The last, and perhaps most controversial truth I’ve come to realize is that everything is the leader’s fault. If you ever try to shift the blame, pass the buck, or hold someone else accountable, you’re failing in your duty.
Leadership is not about taking a central role and holding those beneath you accountable. It’s about serving others, be they investors, clients, or team members.
Every failure, every setback must fall on your shoulders. Why? Because it is your job as a leader to make everyone in your care successful. If someone is underperforming, you have to look inwards and learn how you could have helped them.
Conversely, if there is a big win inside of the organization, good leaders give credit to others, never themselves. Giving credit, even when it may not be entirely deserved, builds people and teams up, making them more productive, successful, and loyal.
These truths may be difficult to swallow, and often go against our culture’s definition of success. However, good leadership is fundamentally rare, difficult, and counter-cultural.
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Originally Published on Forbes