“I will be a great leader when…”

"I will be a great leader when..."

“I will be a great leader when…”

How would you finish that sentence?

Is it when you’ve mastered the leadership lessons of Jesus, Lincoln, Sun Tzu, Steve Jobs or any of the dozens of famous people profiled in popular books?

Or when you’ve been granted a certain title or set of responsibilities?

That’s what I used to think, that you could copy other leaders or simply be appointed to the position. It’s only recently I’m starting to understand that being a great leader requires something else. Something very different.

Leadership at work

At work, we use the word “leadership” so often that its meaning has become diluted, often synonymous with “management” (as in the email you get announcing “the new leadership team”).

Kevin Kruse, an author of several books on employee engagement, attempted a more precise, useful definition in a Forbes article earlier this year, starting with what leadership is not:

“Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles.

Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.

Leadership isn’t management.”

Instead, after further dissecting definitions from managers and management experts, he offers his own:

DEFINITION: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

I like this. It’s devoid of the usual tactics and cliches. The phrase “process of social influence” points to how leadership happens over time and how fragile it is. And the rest of the definition I choose to interpret as “helps others realize their potential towards some greater purpose.”

By that definition, though, I’ve never been a leader and haven’t experienced much leadership. So what does it take to become a great leader?

How to become a great leader

In “Presence” (a wonderful book by Peter Senge et al that I’ve referred to before), there is a chapter on leadership that’s unlike any I’ve ever read. One of the authors had interviewed a Buddhist master who’d just published a new interpretation of a work by Confucius called “The Great Learning”, written over 2400 years ago. He described the Confucian theory of being a leader as resting on a particular idea:

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being. You must recognize the true meaning of life before you can become a great leader. You must understand yourself first.”

“The cultivated self is a leader’s greatest tool,” they said. Given the complexity of the challenges we’re facing, leaders must work on “developing a capacity for delayed gratification, for seeing longer term effects of actions, for achieving quietness of mind.”

I’d never thought of leadership involving these things, but it made sense to me. How could I lead anyone if I’m not even in control of myself?

A long process

Now I also understood why I’d seen so few great leaders. “Understanding myself” and “achieving quietness of mind” have proven elusive for me and at times seem impossible. As they note in “Presence”:

“This idea is a cornerstone of traditional thinking about leadership in indigenous cultures, as it was in ancient China and India. But one reason this traditional view has been largely discarded is that it’s difficult…people who haven’t achieved this state will be obstructed by all kinds of different emotions – greed, fear, anger, anxiety – that will prevent them from making ‘right judgments.’”

As a result, we have people in positions of authority who do terrible things – to themselves, to the people they’re trying to lead, to their environment. And it’s because they’ve skipped the hard work of understanding themselves first. Because only when you know yourself can you help others know themselves and begin the “process of social influence” towards some higher aim.

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

So how would you finish the sentence “I will be a great leader when…”?

For me, I will be a great leader when I’m in touch with myself, with my connectedness to the people and environment around me, and with a goal that unselfishly aims to help the world and the people in it.

I realize that might sound naive and that I may never become a great leader. But it’s worth the effort. As Peter Senge says, “cultivation, ‘becoming a real human being’, really is the primary leadership issue of our time, but on a scale never required before.”

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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32 Responses to “I will be a great leader when…”

  1. Scott Cohan says:

    I’ve always felt that great leaders are brave. They act based on the courage of their convictions and say/do things others might have been afraid to. When I see people – at work, or in my personal life – acting this way, there’s an innate gravitational pull to follow (assuming I generally agree with the direction they’re moving). I think it’s in our DNA from the days when associating yourself with the strongest and bravest might mean survival. My $0.02…

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Scott. I like the word “brave” though it tends to be overused and misused.

      Are the righteous brave? The aggressive? The reckless? The strong?

      I’m reading “I am Malala” and in her story I find true bravery. Malala and her father seem to fit the definition of leadership. They are grounded spiritually (though in a very different way from my own beliefs) and, through education, trying to help others realize their potential.

      In their selfless determination, generosity, and commitment, I find true bravery and leadership.

    • Paulina says:

      … when I work on a worthy goal.
      Even if all of us work for a living, you cannot be truly engaged when your goal, for example, is for your unit to sell more refrigerators.
      Business goals of profits and efficiency may sound as worthy goals to some, but they won’t get a full engagement from me. They engage my intellect but not my heart.

  2. themanwithnoboo says:

    Love this!

  3. Trisha Liu says:

    “…when I’m better at persuasion, influence, and at serving others.” That’s what came to mind first. Reading the comments here and on other channels, I’m sensing some themes. 🙂

    John, thank you for sharing the notion that leadership starts with ourselves. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that leadership means looking outside oneself, at the impact on others. But grounding and self knowledge are crucial foundation elements. I’ve been struggling with these lately. Thank you for the call back to ourselves.

    • John Stepper says:

      That’s the leadership paradox, I guess, that being a leader is both about you and not about you at the same time. You need to look inward and ground yourself before you can be self-less and of service to others.

  4. Ed Oakley says:

    John, I think this is an excellent article. I’d like to include it in our Enlightened Leadership Monthly magazine. Do you have some high-res pictures of yourself?

  5. Reblogged this on systems perestroika – éminence grise and commented:
    “Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company.

    Leadership has nothing to do with titles.

    Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.

    Leadership isn’t management.”

  6. John – Enjoyed your article and point of view. I will certainly post forward.

    It has always been my view that great leaders create leaders… I think Ralph Nader has a well known quote stating the same idea…, which I did know… (sigh!)

    Perhaps the better one to a point within your article is that leadership is about leading. An so to Henry Ford;
    ‘You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do…’

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Paul. I really like that last point and that would be part of my (now run-on) sentence describing “I will be a great leader when…” Leading not just by words but by contribution, by doing things myself and not just trying to inspire others to do things.

  7. I will be a great leader when …. I realize that change starts with me and continues in my absence. I believe I am quoting someone from the Harvard Business School. We often look at Leadership within short term objectives. However, true leadership has the ability to make a permanent impact and change people’s views. Great article Mr Stopper. My question to you is : How do you know that you are not already a great leader ? It’s not only about really knowing yourself, it’s about who you are in the moment when you are interacting with others. Pay attention to the subleties of being a leader. I am definitely a new follower. 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you. You’re very kind. While I’m trying to do a few things that leaders do, true leaders have a history of contribution over time that inspires others by example – that “process of social influence” in the post. And, perhaps more difficult to achieve is the self-awareness and control that only comes with great effort over a long, long time.

      So I’m comfortable calling myself “a leader in training” – something we can all call ourselves, really.

  8. Stephan says:

    Personal mastery first, stability in character and trust in self and others. You can not plan to be a leader, it is given to you when you have achieved trustworthiness. I know many (natural) leaders and only few of them have a “title” – though I also now many with a “title” who are not and will never be true leaders.

  9. Kevin Kruse says:

    John, great article and thanks for hat tip to my article. I’ve actually been focusing more and more on this element of leadership in my writing and speaking, too. Authentic leadership begins with self-awareness, and continues with vulnerability and ultimately transparency. Seems to be recurring themes from Buddhist monks to Navy SEALs. Thanks for sharing and teaching. -Kevin

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Kevin and thank you for your comment.

      I like that: “From Buddhist monks to Navy Seals”. Now I wonder how long it takes for corporate leaders and politicians to catch up. If ever.

      • Hi John, I have a feeling you didn’t get my first message. Probably operator error on my part. John, I’m founder of Enlightened Leadership Solutions and editor of ENLIGHTENED LEADERSHIP Monthly magazine (electronic), and I love this article and would like to republish. The big question is, “Do you have some high resolution pictures of yourself?” Let me know and thanks. In a private conversation, I’m happy to share what drew me to you. 🙂 Ed Oakley

  10. Dr.Tony Akabuno says:

    I will be a great(or better) leader when I have a full upgrade from an influencer to an active leader that effortlessly impacts knowledge on others and proactively motivates team mates to be result oriented. When I truly progress from being a talker to a doer.Adopting the principle of: performance, not promises. I can hang on the tag of a great leader when I am personally convinced that my burning desire to succeed far supercedes my fear of failure. Not until I am used to saying ‘US'(or ‘WE’) instead of ‘ME'(or ‘I’). I will be a great leader when I am never tired of teaching others and transparently revealing my successful strategies to my team. I cannot be a great leader when I trust others far less than I trust myself.That will be against the principle and tactics of maximizing the efforts(or roles) of others.
    John, I must say this is an excellent and thought provoking article.

  11. Hi John, this is an inspiring article and I hope that more and more people especially in our environment will come to this conclusion.
    Actually I don’t think it is naive. It is the only way to create a better environment for ourself and others. The first important step is to understand myself, my thoughts, feelings and needs, crucial is to be empathic with myself. This will allow me to get healthier, more satisfied and in the end happier. Then in the next step I can be empathic to others. This will allow me to understand and support others in a better more sustainable way…Changing myself can lead to a better world:-)

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Gabriela. So nice to see your comment here and your wonderful, uplifting phrase: “Changing myself can lead to a better world:-)”

      Thich Nhat Hanh repeatedly stresses the need to cultivate our selves first (to use the word in “Presence”) so that it’s possible for us to help others.

      As you point out, that long process also has an array of other benefits including an overall sense of well-being.

  12. cedric says:

    I will be a great leader when I…
    1) serve as a mirror for others to help them shine in what they do
    2) act as a true warrior (in non-violent sense of the word) for myself and the world with openness, courage and compassion
    3) realise I am part of a whole and I am able to detach of “things”

    …which means it’s not for tomorrow…but also it doesn’t mean I cannot start working on it now!

    John, I have been reading your posts for a few months now and I find them so inspiring. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      Love this answer. Makes me want to keep working on mine further!

      You captured a lot of key ideas: the sense of service, of being ego-less, of it being a (long) process.

      Thank you. (And I’m very glad you’re enjoying the blog. :-))

  13. Dennis Pearce says:

    Nice article, especially the distinction between leadership and management. “Leader” is a title that has to come from others — it’s not something you can legitimately give to yourself.

    But I wonder how much being a “great” leader is dependent on the situation? Most great leaders lived in times and under circumstances where there was an opportunity for great leadership to emerge. If we someday reach the social business utopia that many advocates and evangelists wish for, with ubiquitous collaboration and extremely flat (or non-existent) hierarchies, does that minimize the number of opportunities for great leadership to take place, no matter how many “latent” great leaders there might be in the organization? Or does it change any of the qualities necessary for a great leader to emerge?

  14. Irene Johansen says:

    I will be a great leader when I…
    … no longer need the credit for the influence, the change. I’ve struggled with that all my life, and while I try hard to give credit where credit is due, I fight for recognition for myself. Maybe it started with being the youngest in a big family of big personalities, all competing for a dearth of recognition and affection. If I don’t need the credit, I can already recognize influence I’ve had. I’m a smart person in a low-on-the-totem-pole job, always trying to use my skills, but demanding recognition for them at the same time. I’ve done my best work, however, when I’ve given what was needed at the time, without thinking about credit. That work can influence other work. Those words can influence other words. Those thoughts expressed quietly can affect other thoughts publicly. I’ll be a great leader when I can dump my ego, and just do what’s in front of me, with thought to the long view, and forget about recognition.

    Stephan: “I know many (natural) leaders and only few of them have a “title” – though I also now many with a “title” who are not and will never be true leaders.” I know some people like this too in both categories. In my best moments, the first is who I want to be.

    “While I’m trying to do a few things that leaders do, true leaders have a history of contribution over time that inspires others by example – that “process of social influence” in the post. And, perhaps more difficult to achieve is the self-awareness and control that only comes with great effort over a long, long time.

    So I’m comfortable calling myself “a leader in training” – something we can all call ourselves, really.”

    Leader in training you may be, but … I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and as I’ve said before, it keeps me going some days. You have a history of contribution over time that is still inspiring others, and fostering the process of social influence. I see your blog as, amongst other things, one of the platforms you use to examine yourself. I ask that you keep going. I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s certainly helping me. Keep it honest, as you have always been.

    Lastly, a little present: Miracle of miracles, there is one politician at least who is aware of what real leadership is, and tries to engage in it every day. While he’s very well regarded (“hyped” almost:
    http://metronews.ca/news/calgary/861618/calgary-mayor-naheed-nenshi-ranked-no-2-on-macleans-power-list/), his eye still seems to be on the prize, even in his second term: managing the City of Calgary to the best of his, and all his people’s abilities, maximizing the efforts of his team, engaging citizens in the effort, being accountable to us, and keeping us in touch, with what’s going, with council, with him, and with each other. Just before, during and after flooding covered much of Calgary and southern Alberta this spring, I got my most up-to-date information to pass on to others by following his Twitter feed, which he did himself, live – almost 24/7. After all that, this comment stands out:

    “One of the things we learned this summer more than anything else is that real power doesn’t live with government or executives. … Every single one of us has the power to improve our community, and if I was going to say who Canada’s most powerful people are, I would say the everyday heroes who every single day make the community better.” – His Honour Mayor Naheed Nenshi, City of Calgary.

  15. Today as I was reading articles about Nelson Mandela on his passing yesterday, one of his quotes reminded me of this blog.
    “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.”
    Mandela was a true leader and we should all look emulate him.

  16. Today as I was reading the articles on Nelson Mandela’s passing, on of his most famous quotes reminded me of this blog from last weekend.
    “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.”
    Mandela was a true leader and someone we should look to emulate.

  17. Christoph Thiede says:

    Hi John, thanks again for a great read!

    I habe just been through my 3rd 10 Day Vipassana Meditation Course and thought to share that with you.

    I aim to so this once every year because it helps me get to myself and when I read this I thought you might be open to the idea and have a look. Certainly one of the best things that ever happened to me.

    This is the international homepage and you can jump off from there to all local facilities. There are quite a few in the states. http://www.dhamma.org

    In case of questions, I welcome you to ask back – it must not always be about Jive vs. SharePoint i.e. technology 😉

    Bests seasons greetings from Germany And a successful 2014 to you and your family. May the best days of the year past be the worst of the one to come.


    Mit besten Grüßen / with kind regards

    Christoph Thiede

    Maistraße 20 D-80337 München

    m: +49 (170) 5754284 ________________________________

  18. Pingback: The Art of Leadership and lessons from the Past – introduction. | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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