The Art of Leadership

Above Image | Paintings by Roberto Parada, Eric Heintz (photo composition) , Luke Stettner/Getty Images (gallery). Fill out your skills and take command.

Even if your last name isn’t Franklin, King, or Jobs, you have the opportunity to step up and take charge of your life. Here are the new rules to get you started.

By Ted Spiker

It seems like every time we open our social media feed, there’s news of another leader imploding. A peewee football coach starting a UFC-worthy brawl in front of 9-year-olds. A CEO caught with his hand in the coffers. A politician caught with his hand somewhere else.

Now think of your life—the bosses you deal with, the officials you voted for, your kids’ coaches and teachers. How good is the quality of leadership you see every day?

Inspiring? Horrible? meh?

“There’s a woeful lack of good leaders today,” says Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last. “We have some, but we need many more. At the end of the day, it’s embarrassing that I even have a career. I write and talk about trust and cooperation. There should be no demand for my work.”

Indeed, Gallup research reveals that when companies name managers, those hires or promotions fail to work out 82 percent of the time. And the latest Edelman Trust Barometer found that only half of Americans trust businesses and 39 percent trust government.

“most organizations today lack the leadership they need,” writes John Kotter, a professor emeritus of leadership at Harvard Business School. “I’m not talking about a deficit of 10 percent but of 200 percent...or more...up and down the hierarchy.”

Leaders are vital because we look to them for cues on what to do. Duke University neurobiologists have found that male monkeys, when given the choice of what to look at, place similarly high value on the hindquarters of female monkeys and leaders of their troops.

“Leadership is a way of creating order out of our complicated and ambiguous social world,” says Brad Owens, Ph.D., a business ethics expert at Brigham Young University. So it follows that the more complex our lives become, the more frustrated we feel when our leaders turn out to be monkey butts.

Amid this dearth of leadership, however, lies opportunity—a chance for you to step up. Yes, you. Leaders are made, not born, suggests research led by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford. De Neve looked at whether leadership has genetic components and found that there is a genotype shared by leaders; he concluded, however, that leadership traits stem from a mix of genetics and environment. So even if your last name isn’t Lombardi, you can develop strong leadership skills. And you don’t need to be a CEO or have political aspirations to implement them.

“A leader is somebody who makes all the people around him or her better, and that cuts across all levels,” says Ethan Bernstein, Ph.D., of Harvard Business School. That person can be you, at whatever level you choose.

Leadership isn’t dying; it’s evolving. To step up, you just need to understand the new rules of being a leading man.

Be a Humble Narcissist
The Golden State Warriors came closer to regular-season perfection than any other team in NBA history this year, winning a record 73 games. Head coach Steve Kerr, 51, had a lot to do with that. Part of the reason he’s so loved and respected (Fortune placed him on its latest World’s Greatest Leaders list) is his easygoing but intensely competitive style. He has smashed his fist through a clipboard during a game, but after games he regularly deflects any credit for his team’s success.
This showcases an important trait of high-quality leaders today: fluidity. The new leadership isn’t about exhibiting one style all the time. Rather, it’s about having a repertoire of skills that allows you to adapt to a variety of situations. You may need to be ruthless when cutting costs at work, but you don’t need that same chest-thumping behavior when you’re fundraising for your church.
“There’s so much temptation to lead in a strong, authoritative way [because] that’s what’s expected,” says Owens. But the one- dimensional bully leader is dead. Even though 80 percent of people in a Pew Research Center survey cited decisiveness as an essential leadership trait, today’s smart leaders understand that what precedes decisiveness is equally important—the ability to admit that you don’t know everything and the willingness to defer to others for opinions.
Specifically, Owens has found in his studies that when leaders show more humility, team performance improves. One reason: In the information services age, it’s increasingly difficult for any one leader to figure it all out, he says. But perhaps the greatest advantage of humility is that it can temper perceptions of narcissism, thereby allowing a leader to remain strong without appearing dictatorial. Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that a leader who is perceived to have the contradictory traits of narcissism and humility is also viewed as being more effective. “It’s almost a schizophrenic process,” Owens says. Here are three ways to develop that persona:
  • Ask questions. Pepper every conversation with them. This lets everyone know you’re considering all options and points of view. Wow, he’s listening!
  • Act now but explain later. When you have to make a fast decision, be bold and strong. Then counter the perception that you’re an ogre by explaining to your group why the situation demanded fast action.
  • Thank the team. Even though you’re damn proud of yourself when things work out, credit everyone else. Sure, it may sound cliché in a postgame interview, but not to your team.
Put Respect Before Results
Sinek recently stayed at the Four Seasons in Vegas, where he met Noah, a barista who was so sharp that Sinek left a 100 percent tip. “Do you like your job?” Sinek asked. “I love it,” Noah replied. The reason? His managers regularly ask how he’s doing and if he needs anything to do his job better. Noah also works at another Vegas resort, but he hates it there because the managers don’t care about his personal well-being or improvement.
“Behavior is based on leadership,” Sinek explains. “The CEO is not responsible for customers. The CEO is responsible for the people responsible for the customers.” To put this into practice, remember three things:
  • Lecture less. Everything a leader does is microscoped, so be aware of the possible perceptions of your actions. If you’re 30 minutes late to work, you’re not dedicated. If you congratulate Roscoe on a good play and then ignore Troy when he does the same, you’re playing favorites. Exhibit the behavior you desire.
  • Get personal. Be efficient with emails and texts, but don’t let them replace talking. “Walk across the hall to give a compliment,” says Sinek. “Make people feel like you care. Email doesn’t do that. Human interaction does.”
  • Pocket your phone. Putting your phone on a conference or dinner table, even facedown, tells everyone they’re not the priority. “When you show deference to the group, you’re repaid in loyalty,” says Sinek.
Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
Colin Powell, retired four-star general
Make Yourself Accountable
In 2010, U.S. forces bombed a truck convoy in Afghanistan and killed more than two dozen civilians. General Stanley McChrystal, a top commander at the time, called the Afghan president and apologized. Being honest about a mistake that you’ve made, he explained, is crucial to building trust.
McChrystal, who was later removed from his command after criticizing the Obama administration, now teaches leadership at Yale. His decision to be forthright bucks a tendency shown by many leaders to either deny their fallibility entirely or sugarcoat or hide bad news in the hope that it’ll fade away.
“We have a huge cultural problem, one of a lack of accountability and being so tolerant when it comes to confronting issues,” says Lee Ellis, a retired Air Force colonel who was held as a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam. “Leaders, for whatever reason, want to be liked. They don’t want to make people upset. So they don’t have the courage to confront issues, and people say, ‘When is the boss going to do something about the problem?’”
So the make-everyone-happy approach is actually doing the opposite—making everyone upset. And it’s counter to what groups want and need from the top. In that Pew survey mentioned earlier, honesty was the highest-rated characteristic, with 84 percent of people saying it’s essential to leadership.
“It’s transparency that builds trust,” notes Roger Schwarz, the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.
Ellis, who was the youngest POW in his group, says he learned his most memorable leadership lessons from the more senior POWs who endured torture in order to spare others. What’s lacking among leaders today, he contends, is one thing: courage—the guts to be honest and up front, to have adult conversations, and to ask the tough questions.
“I define courage as doing what’s right even when it doesn’t feel natural and safe,” says Ellis, the author of Engage with Honor. “Overcoming fears to do what we know is right—that’s leading with honor.”
Granted, this is something that’s easier said than done. The next time you need to summon some courage and confront someone in a difficult situation in the workplace or even at home, use this four-part template to be honest yet constructive:
  • Praise: “Bob, I want to congratulate you on doing such a bang-up job with the sales numbers...”
  • Criticism: “...but there’s a sense that every transaction comes with drama that’s causing stress for the rest of the team.”
  • Interrogation: “Why do you think this is happening?”
  • Resolution: “Let’s figure out some ways we can keep getting good results without the anxiety and frustration some of your coworkers are feeling.”
You can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”
Phil Jackson, former NBA player and coach
Look Back as Often as You Look Ahead
Today, Steve Jobs is regarded as a visionary genius. But back in 2005, in his famous Stanford University commencement speech, he said something surprising: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.”
In other words, Jobs didn’t think the future should be the sole focus; it’s the ability to analyze what happened in the past that’s valuable. When you look at the arc of his career, you can see this reflected in his leadership style. From a ruthlessly honest, competitive micromanager who started Apple, got fired, launched other companies, and then returned to Apple, he evolved into a more flexible and balanced CEO who developed new skills that ultimately made Apple the powerhouse it is today.
In sports, this strategy would be the equivalent of watching game film; in relationships, the periodic discussion of how far the two of you have come. In any leadership situation, it’s about analyzing what you did right and wrong so you know what to do better. To develop this skill, try these three strategies:
  • Ask for feedback. Encourage it by entrusting people on your team to honestly tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Or pair up with a leadership buddy or mentor—someone outside the team—to bounce ideas off.
  • Take time to digest. When you leave a meeting, instead of immediately moving on to the next thing, spend a few minutes reflecting on what happened (or take a few notes). Did everyone leave on the same page, or was there some discord? What could you have done differently? “The reflection part—to accurately diagnose the lessons you learned—is part of the continuous improvement cycle,” says Paul Tesluk, Ph.D., dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management.
  • Track your batting average. Before you make a decision, jot down what you think will happen after it’s made. Then six months later, look back at your predictions and see how well you did. Consider what you got right and what you didn’t, and how to adjust next time a similar situation comes up.
Make Your Mission More Than a Statement
In 1964, Phil Knight started selling shoes out of his car. Sixteen years later, Nike reached financial stability. If Knight hadn’t been so passionate and dedicated, he wouldn’t have turned an idea into a $32 billion business.
While nobody suggests that bottom lines are rubbish, some argue that the problem with leadership today rests here: If we only judge success financially, we’re shortsighted. This is Sinek’s message, that organizations need to start with the “why” before the “how much.”
“Many CEOs, when they became CEOs, don’t believe in purpose. They’re living in the economic paradigm,” says Robert Quinn, Ph.D., a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan. “Most executives don’t want to touch ‘purpose’ because it’s not considered ‘real work.’”
A 2014 Gallup survey found that only 32 percent of workers are engaged. That, Quinn says, is also at the heart of the leadership problem. “Many companies have a purpose statement, but in most cases, it’s not real,” he explains. “But in about 10 percent of cases, the companies mean what they’re saying, and that’s where there’s payoff.”
For example, Nike’s mission statement is “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*If you have a body, you are an athlete.)” Twitter’s is “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
These are missions people can get behind. It’s easy to lead when you’re the spokesman for them. Here’s how to create your own “why”:
  • Mimic a 2-year-old. Why do you work for this company? Why do you want to coach your kid in youth soccer? Why do you want to run for county commissioner? Instead of just articulating results (the money’s good, the current coach sucks, my property’s in danger), define your fundamental drive (the company’s creating a better world, my son needs to learn that there’s more to sport than winning and losing, I want to improve my community). If you can’t articulate your whys in this way, you shouldn’t be going down that path.
  • Here’s the thing: Even though they often use the excuse, leaders don’t fail because they lack the right people; they fail because the people don’t truly believe the leader is right.

    “The leader sets the environment, and we respond to the environment,” says Sinek. “People will give you their blood, sweat, and tears to advance your vision if they feel like you care about them and they feel you want to help them grow so they can accomplish more.”

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self- restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president