Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.
What is it about leadership? It seems as if the more we talk about it the harder it is to understand. It is a topic that refuses to be quantified and escapes our airtight definitions, no matter how many hours we spend on the subject. But all of us know when leadership is present, and sadly, when it’s not. When a leader moves, the team moves, accomplishing record breaking outputs, while creating cultures that produce results for the long term.
Attempting to define leadership reminds me of the story of the blind men who were feeling different parts of the elephant. When attempting to describe what they were feeling they described a truthful summary from their own perspective, but certainly not an accurate record, because each was missing huge parts of the overall picture. If we take any of the blind men’s description as an all-inclusive answer, we will be led astray and will miss huge parts of the picture. With that qualifier, let me share with you part of the leadership elephant this “blind” author is feeling.
An average leader raises the bar on himself by pushing past his former limits. Internally driven to improve, he settles for nothing less than his personal best, achieving more by believing more, breaking his previous records. Since example is so important in leadership, modeling the proper behaviors for the rest of the team becomes one of a leaders key assignments, accepting no excuses from himself or others, constantly seeking to drive leadership improvement. Example alone, will move a team forward, but will not create championship organizations by itself. A good example which confirms this principle is Michael Jordan’s early professional career. By driving himself to fanatical levels to improve, holding himself accountable to the highest standards, he achieved personal success at the peak levels, winning multiple scoring championships, but regretfully, no team championships. The joke around the league nicknames the Bulls, Michaels Jordan and the Jordanaires. Being a top performer in one’s field is not enough; building a winning team requires more, such as the ability to empathize with others, to listen to their fears, and to coax the greatness out of them. Jordan eventually became a champion, not because his personal skills improved, although they did, but because he learned to play as part of a team through the influence of Phil Jackson. Jackson taught Jordan a key lesson that all top performers must learn, mainly, to be patient with the weaknesses of others, to empathize with their fears without sympathizing, while consistently inspiring them with their dreams. Jordan learned to lead on the court, including the team more through sharing the ball, and in essence playing the lead instrument, but not the only instrument, in the Bull’s five-man basketball band. The Chicago Bulls went on to win six NBA championships, a phenomenal feat in any sport, especially the grueling game of NBA basketball.
Leaders must help raise the bar on others by expecting more, believing more, and allowing others to do more. Remember, individuals grow, but teams explode. Winning teams form when everyone on the team is increasing his or her skills through the influence of leadership. Wherever you see a team growing, whenever you see an organization breaking through, it is for certain that somewhere in that company a leader was hard at work raising the bar on his or her self and on others.
The highest level of leadership, an extremely rare level, achieved by only a few individuals in any particular field, is when the leader inspires other performers to become leaders. It’s tough enough to perform, tougher still to perform while leading others to step up their game, but dynasties are created when leaders surround themselves with other leaders, raising the bar of excellence throughout the organization. Leadership at the highest level demands a lifetime of serving others, surrendering recognition, serving unconditionally for years, and believing in people when everyone else has given up on them. True leadership then, is less of what you do and more of who you are. People follow you because they know you are trustworthy; because you have proven yourself over the years to be who you say you are.
Leaders willingly sacrifice in the short term for long term results. I love the old saying, “If you are growing tomatoes plant for a season, if you are growing oak trees, plant for a lifetime.” Top leaders deny the urge to control others, realizing that leaders do not need to be controlled. Instead, top leaders inspire others with a compelling vision of the future while other leaders, buying into this vision, because they have previously bought into the visionary leaders character, align themselves personally and professionally to achieve greatness together. Dynasties are created when groups buy into the team’s vision, surrender their personal egos and replace them with a team ego, demand excellence from themselves, and compel others to raise their own bar through the power of a unifying vision backed by trust in character-centered leaders. This is the top, the peak of leadership, which creates a vision from the mountaintop, a culture of excellence, and the birth of a dynasty.