In the 19th Century, the Great Man Theory of leadership posited the idea that leaders were born, not made, and naturally possessed superior intelligence and heroic courage. Great leaders were also male, and, according to some, guided by divine inspiration.
When thinking about great leaders, the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela spring to mind more often than Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
We also continue to believe (in practice if not theory) that leaders should make most or all major decisions, be followed without much question, and – the most commonly held belief – have all the answers to their organisation’s problems.
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self. ― Ernest Hemingway
Predictably, this gives rise to ego in leadership: when in a position of authority, a leader often feels like they have all the answers, and so they make decisions that go unchallenged.
The Great Man Theory might have been the preferred style over centuries passed; and, yet, despite the wealth of research contradicting the theory in terms of its effectiveness, many of us continue to unconsciously buy into this outdated perspective.
To a degree, it’s understandable. Particularly in Asian culture, we tend to respect hierarchies and defer to those in positions of authority. Universally, humans have always looked to those who are in charge for answers to problems.
We feel comforted in having someone in charge who knows what to do when things aren’t going according to plan. Especially in challenging times, as we now find ourselves in, dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, many people seek out whoever they feel has the most comforting and convincing answers to the problem we face.
In truth, many of these ‘answers’ are currently projections or assumptions. This isn’t a time for the standalone maverick who solves problems: the solution to overcoming this unique problem is community and collaboration.
While some leaders might succumb to the temptation of being seen as the ‘Great (Wo)man’, in today’s world, it’s those who are able to show humility and vulnerability who tend to garner the most respect from their followers. These leaders have little interest in having power over people; instead, they prefer to master themselves while serving others.
It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err. ― Mahatma Gandhi
According to H. Irving Grousbeck – an adjunct professor of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business – if leaders wish to mould themselves and be seen as authentic and credible, they should work on eradicating any sense of being a great, know-it-all leader.
Instead, they should demonstrate that, while they may be captain of the ship for a while, they’re far from infallible in their knowledge or their judgements.
As a leader, says Grousbeck, if someone asks us a question to which we don’t know the answer, then we should be honest and say, “I don’t know.”
For a lot of people, it’s sometimes a difficult response, because we want to be seen as intelligent and in-the-know, and so we might attempt a rough answer that hopefully fits the question. However, in doing that, we risk damaging our credibility as leaders.
There’s no shame in not knowing everything, even about our own organisations, which tend to evolve and grow over time as we juggle a thousand tasks on a daily basis. If ever I’m asked a question I’m not sure of, I tend to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but let me ask so-and-so – they know about that area much better than I do.”
As an added bonus, I might get the chance to connect people who previously didn’t know each other well. In the past, it’s led to some great collaborations as people discover shared interests or challenges they’d like to overcome.
To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength. ― Criss Jami
In leadership, we often get the notion of strength the wrong way around. If we think about school bullies, what do they usually do? Try to show their strength and control each situation often at the expense of others. And yet, bullies tend to be insecure and afraid – being seen to be vulnerable is the last thing they desire.
On the other hand, people who are secure don’t need to show their strength; it simply comes out through their example, and part of that strength is not being afraid of vulnerability. That’s why we tend to gravitate toward people who are authentic because they’re exactly the kind of people we want to emulate and follow.
Be careful not to mistake insecurity and inadequacy for humility! Humility has nothing to do with the insecure and inadequate! Just like arrogance has nothing to do with greatness! ― C. JoyBell C.
As well as having the humility to say, “I don’t know”, Grousbeck also highlights another powerful quality of authentic leadership: kindness. Interestingly, while this trait is rarely associated with the Great Man Theory of leadership, accounts of leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Alexander the Great are replete with tales of kindness toward their followers.
All these iconic leaders recognised the nature of kindness in motivating and uplifting others. As Grousbeck advises, top performers never want to leave bosses who show a personal interest in them, adding, “Money and stock are in finite supply, while praise and thanks are in abundance and can be even more powerful.”
Even with average or low-performing employees, it’s amazing just how much difference can be made when leaders show an interest in who they are beyond the job. In my experience, many ‘low performers’ aren’t bad at the job; instead, there’s usually a lack of self-confidence or feelings of insecurity underpinning their demotivation. It could also be the case that something personal is going in their lives.
Whatever the reason, leaders never get to find out what’s wrong and how they can help if there’s no personal connection. It might seem counter-intuitive that humility and kindness are the keys to great leadership; however, for centuries, these have often driven the successful campaigns of many great men and women leaders.
To move anyone to do anything, connection is crucial and, while certain internal strengths can reinforce the spirit of leadership, nothing can be achieved without the people by our side who work hard to make things happen. Not even Alexander the Great could conquer the world on his own.
This might interest you: The Qualities of a Good Boss (According to Google)