Do You Have a License to Lead?

A license is needed for almost anything, but few recognize the need for a license to lead

There is very little we are allowed to do in the world today – at least legally – without first securing a valid license to do it. If we want to drive a car, get married or buy a gun (these two are not necessarily connected), catch a fish, hunt a deer or sell virtually anything, a valid license is required. (Bankers even have a license to be stupid.)

Aside from being a perfect scam to collect fees, a license issued by a governmental agency implies at least a basic competency on the part of the licensee to perform the certified activity, without being a risk to society. To obtain a license authorizing the performance of a specific task or to offer a service, the applicant must show at least a modicum of knowledge, experience and competency. Of course, there is no assurance that the licensee will, for example, satisfactorily cut your hair or reroof your house.

Leadership in Business

This bureaucratic, perfunctory licensing process is all well and good for the mundane, but it does not fit for what are the most important things in life – like being a successful leader. If you want to be successful in business, you do need a license to lead, but this license can’t be issued by a government agency. Nor does holding a title like  “CEO” or “Branch Manager” grant you authority or bestow a license to lead. A license to lead can only be issued by the followers and their basis for issuing this license is predicated on just one competency test:  trust. And that doesn’t come easily.

No matter what the title, how well educated, experienced or powerful, you will not have a license to lead unless those who you want to follow you trust you. And trust is not something you can study for, demand or buy – it must be earned.

The question is: How do you get the followers to issue you a license to lead?

Critical to earning your license to lead is the recognition that it is a process, not a procedure. True, deep-seated trust in the leader does not come overnight; it comes over time and cannot be mandated. Those seeking a license to lead start the process by setting standards for the organization. These principles must be clear, concise and rigorously followed.

Other touchstones of leadership include a clear vision of the group’s ultimate goal; a well-defined delineation of what is acceptable practice and what is not, and how people can expect to be treated. These standards must become a set of inviolate ideologies upon which the organization is led and form the phalanx of the effort to build trust. The irony is that members of the group do not have to agree with the standards in order to build trust. They only need to know what the standards are and that they will be consistently enforced, so at all times they know where they stand and how to plan.

The process of building trust boils down one word – consistency. Being consistent does not mean one has to be Mother Teresa, but it does mean that the individual seeking a license to lead can’t be a saint one day and the devil incarnate the next. Building trust comes from the individual being consistent, even if it is being consistently a self-centered jerk. For followers to issue a license to lead, it does not require that they necessarily like the boss, but they learn they can count on his consistency.

There is another secret to building a bond of trust that will encourage followers to issue a license to lead. It happens when the one seeking a license to lead sends a simple message to the followers: “Step out and do this for me and I’ve got your back.” Members of the organization are encouraged to put their heads down and plow forward, relying on the promise that the leader is there to provide support and cover. This offers workers the confidence that should something go wrong, the leader will be right with them to help. This forms a natural relationship between the leader and the followers that results in a reservoir of trust.

One of the best ways to encourage followers to issue a license to lead is to conscientiously and consistently share the success of an organization with those who participate in that success. When both victories – and even failures – are shared, then a trust is established that allows the followers to do their job with the confidence and assurance that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded.

In reality, there are very few licenses to lead issued. That’s because the traditional idea of leadership in business is based more on power and position than trust. Many in positions of authority do not place a high level of importance on establishing trust with rank and file followers because they don’t think it is necessary. They don’t understand why they need trust when they have the power. Typically for those with the power of position the idea of trust is expressed in an attitude that says, “The job of the employee is to follow my orders and I trust they will do it.”

Since  so many companies being run by those who have not been issued a license to lead, what is the value to be gained by making the effort to be obtain this  license, this wholehearted employee approval to lead?

In simple terms, a valid license to lead becomes a “get-out-of-jail-free” card the leader can play when needed. A license to lead bestows an operational freedom on a leader that is never enjoyed by the traditional boss. This is important because no matter how open and transparent the leader may wish to be, there are going to be times when total disclosure is not possible and times when some are simply not going to understand his actions. In times like this, only the licensed leader can move forward confidently and seamlessly knowing the followers will not only follow, but fully support the decisions made by the leader. This allows the licensed leader to act effectively in both good and bad times; and may be the ultimate difference that wards off failure and determines success.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you want a license to lead, you have to pass the test of trust. No matter what you title or power in an organization, trust cannot be demanded, but must be earned. A license to lead is earned over time and the most effective way to achieve it is to engage in a consistent process of communication and transparency. A license to lead is earned by being totally open with others regarding the issues, challenges, objective and plans of the organization.

Gaining the trust of followers comes down to demonstrating that you trust the followers even more than you expect them to trust you. If you are willing to respect the value of the followers and trust them with your future and the success of the organization, then in response, the followers will enthusiastically issue you the most important license of all – the license to lead.




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