Stepping Up to Successful Leadership Calls for Many Small Steps

Leadership is not about one giant leap, but about a lot of small steps that add up to a big success.

We’ve been raised and socialized on time-honored images of leadership. The standard-bearer of leadership is depicted as one who is out front or highly visible. We are conditioned to believe that the best leadership is provided when the leader is in the limelight, the clear focus of attention and attraction. Museums are chockablock with portraits that depict this quintessential view of leadership. You know, The Gallant Crusader with flapping flag in hand astride the supersized charger – rising above the chaos to lead his followers to vanquish the evil marauding mongrels.

The traditional images of the leader are often based on a single, dramatic event. The mention of Teddy Roosevelt evokes visions of his bravery while leading the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. Think of Bonaparte atop his white Mythsteed on his way to glory at St. Bernard Pass. George Washington’s leadership is often depicted by him (foolishly) standing up in a leaky rowboat, leading his army across the Delaware River to attack the Hessians (German mercenary soldiers hired by the British) in the middle of winter. There is the World War II visual image of Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading ashore (it took four takes to get it right) in the Philippines as if he were the first one to confront and frighten off the Japanese.

I could go on and on with these time-honored examples of what leadership is purported to be, but why? The fact is, at best these are archaic myths of leadership, not the reality of what leadership is really about. Real leadership is acchieved» by following a much more mundane approach. And when leadership is exercised in this manner, it is much more effective and lasting, especially in today’s world.

Certainly one cannot be a leader if there are no followers. But attracting those who will follow cannot be mandated; that kind of dedication must be earned over time. In simple terms, leaders must give followers a reason to follow. An effective and successful leader approaches this task by adopting five specific steps: Teacher, coach, taskmaster, cheer leader and fan.

Teaching » When Franklin Roosevelt was trying to lead America out of its greatest economic crisis by changing the Rooseveltfundamental nature of how government functioned, he conducted a series of radio “Fireside Chats.” In doing so, he went directly to Americans (those he wanted to follow him) to explain in simple, down-to-earth terms they could understand the essence of the economic crisis and made clear his vision for solving it. By “teaching” the American public to understand the reasons for his actions and to explain his vision, he made them feel part of the process. This approach coalesced the power and support of the followers in a way that allowed him to overcome stiff opposition to his plans. In reality, to be effective, leaders must learn to teach before they lead.

Coaching » Winning coaches in any sport don’t just tell their players what they want – they show them. A football coach does not pass out diagrams of plays he wants run, and then leave it to the team to flesh them out. The coach will lead the team through the plays, making them practice and practice till they are run effectively. During the decisive Battle of the Bulge during World War II, General Patton was able to accomplish what no other general thought possible. He was able to pivot three divisions consisting of thousands of soldiers and mechanized armor and move them over 100 miles in less than two days, to thwart and defeat the German offensive. How was Patton’s army able to carry out this seemingly impossible maneuver? He had coached and practiced the very same movement when his army was training in the desert of California. Effective leaders don’t tell followers what to do, they coach them to victory.

Taskmaster » There is a negative connotation to the term “taskmaster.” (Taskmaster was the super-villain and antihero to the Avengers in Marvel Comics.) Generally a boss who imposes an unfair burden and work on others is tagged with the “taskmaster” moniker. But being a taskmaster as a leader can be very effective in achieving an objective—so long as the actions are fair and equitable. What a leader does as a taskmaster is demand and enforce accountability in order to successfully complete a task. When followers understand they will be held accountable – both in terms responsibility and reward – they are much more inclined to focus on the effort assigned by the leader.

Cheerleader » The effective leader is always there offering support and encouragement for the followers’ efforts. The leader is there to reassure the followers when times are difficult and to applaud their efforts as they move forward. Most people seek – indeed crave – recognition, support and approval for the efforts they are making. Nothing is more motivating for a follower to do more than to know that their leader is cheering for them, recognizing, appreciating and supporting their efforts.

Fan » Few things make people feel better than to know they have fans pulling for and committed to their success. An important role for an effective leader is to be a fan of their followers. True leaders become fans when they are involved with the efforts of the followers, show respect for the value they are adding and share the successful outcome with their followers. The best way for leaders to motivate others to follow is to be boisterous fan of the efforts and accomplishments of the followers.

Seeking success as a leader starts with breaking from the myth that leadership is defined by out-front flamboyance and the search for personal glory. Instead, put the mission and the people out front and make them the focus. Real leaders spotlight what is to be accomplished and the efforts of those who will accomplish it, not how accomplished the leader may be.

And the Moral of the Story …

The leader as a “demigod” out front and hell-bent-for-leather may have been an effective image in the past, but leadership in today’s world calls for a different approach. Leadership in the modern world boils down to understanding that the best leaders lead best when they appear to follow.

Genuine leadership has never been exhibited by a single, dramatic episode but rather an intricate series of actions and events that fuse the followers into a dynamic and focused force that is targeted to achieve the objectives of the leader – because the actions of the leader have encouraged them to adopt the objectives as their own. An effective leader teaches, coaches, demands accountability, cheers for the success of others and is an abiding fan of those they seek as followers.

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