It is a myth that great leaders have all the answers. That they have got it all figured out. That they are all-knowing, all-powerful, all-commanding superhumans. If that were true, nobody could ever live up to it. Actually, there are many, many excellent leaders who are anything but superhuman. The advantage they have over others is precisely that they know their own limitations.
Leadership is a team sport
Great leaders understand that if they rely on themselves alone for success, they will come up short. They know that their own abilities can only get them so far. And they can see that taking responsibility entirely on their own shoulders would mean neglecting the enormous potential of others. In short, they understand that leadership is a team sport.
This means they build teams comprising people who are better and smarter than they are in various ways. Great leaders also understand that others have limits too. They draw on the individual strengths of their team members, while compensating for their weaknesses. In their teams, every individual can learn from the others, be challenged and grow. They complement each other and augment the team as a whole. Collectively they are that bit closer to being Superman.
In praise of the incomplete leader
One of my all-time favorite article in the Harvard Business Review discusses the idea of the ‘incomplete leader’. Its authors recognise that the idea of the superhuman leader is misconceived, and suggest a model of ‘distributed leadership’ instead. Rather than seeing leadership as a quality to be found in one individual, they see it as a set of four capabilities:
- Sensemaking: Understanding the context in which one operates,
- Relating: Building relationships within and across organizations,
- Visioning: Creating a compelling picture of the future, and
- Inventing: Developing new ways to achieve the vision.
Poor leaders tell. Great leaders inspire
I always found the clarity and simplicity of this model so convincing and inspiring. Looking at these four capabilities, it becomes obvious that you need all of them for exceptional performance. And at the same time it is evident that no one person can sustainably excel in all four of them simultaneously.
It makes us aware of the fact that the most important role we have as leaders is to form teams that collectively incorporate all four capabilities. And the best leaders understand how to continuously hone their team’s capabilities. Not by telling them where to look and what to do. They understand that poor leaders tell. Average leaders explain. Good leaders demonstrate. And great leaders inspire. Not at all by being superhuman, but by helping bringing out the best in others.
The ‘invisible’ architect
Where do your unique capabilities lie? Which ones are missing in your current leadership team? Are you cultivating the principle of distributed leadership and is your leadership team on board with the approach to leadership as a team sport? Better understanding of context (sensemaking) leads to better ways of achieving your goals (inventing). Strong relationships (relating) support a compelling vision of the future (visioning). And so on. Try to see yourself as the ‘invisible’ architect of your team’s capabilities. Putting them together in the right setting. Letting them complement each other. Helping each one to individually improve and to collectively excel.
Whether you think leadership is an art or a calling, whether you think leaders are made or born, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu captures the essence of great leadership beautifully: ‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.’