As a speaker and consultant I meet a lot of new people over the course of a year. Every single one of them is different but the start of our conversations is always the same.
There are only two questions people ever ask me when we first meet.
Unless we are in France, or a French speaking country, the first question is normally “how do you pronounce your name?” If you’re interested it’s like “go be yo”. I sometimes wish it was “go be you” to enable me to play on that theme as part of my leadership development practice, but my forbearers did not anticipate my chosen career so I missed out on the “u”.
The second question normally comes after they have found out what I do for a living. At that stage, what most people really want to know is “what do great leaders do?” I don’t blame them. I have devoted the last 15 years of my life trying to find out the answer. However, in that search, I have also realised that it is the wrong question.
There is a question that comes before what do great leaders do and that is “what’s a leader?” The answer is simple; “someone who is followed”. This being the case, the most important person in the equation is the follower. A great leader is someone who manages to have a great many followers, prepared to give up some of their freedom to act, in search of something greater than they can achieve alone.
When looked at it in that way, forget “what do great leaders do?”; the key question becomes “what do great followers want?” With that question we can explain why seemingly different people become great leaders. We no longer have to hope we can be “like somebody” but rather can feel free to explore what we are like when we are at our best. Development stops being about aping someone else and starts becoming about being a better, more skilled version of ourselves in the service of our followers.
When we make the switch from the “great leaders” to the “great followers” question we no longer need a model of what we ought to be but rather a set of principles that will help us to find out who we truly can be.
Having worked to support others in that search for over a decade there are four things I know to be true.
1 – THERE’S A TICK IN “AUTHENTICK”
I have always been appalled by trite business sayings like ‘there’s no I in team’ (there should be) and ‘assume makes an ass of you and me’ (it doesn’t). Yet I admit to being fascinated by their staying power. So for the last decade I have been trying to come up with my own. So here goes “There’s a Tick, in authentick”. It may be bad but it makes the point!
That point is that leadership is entirely dependent on authenticity. You will always sub-optimize your impact if you try to be someone other than yourself. And you cannot be authentic if you don’t understand what makes you tick. To be yourself you have to know yourself and what you stand for.
2 – SURROUND BUT DON’T SURRENDER
People are always keen on giving advice. Everyone has a view or opinion they like to share. Even if you are high up in an organization and the people below you find it hard to give you feedback, peers, analysts and shareholders are never shy at dispensing their wisdom.
While surrounding yourself with advisers enlarges your view, you should not surrender to their advice. It is your leadership, your principles and your points of view that matter. Becoming a mouthpiece for the conflicting views of others or acting purely as a curator for those views is a sure way to fail in engaging others.
This is the hardest balancing act of leadership. We shouldn’t be stubborn when faced with a reality that questions the very essence of our views. Yet we must remember that it is only reconciliation, never compromise, that is necessary.
3 – THINK MADONNA AND CHILD
The key to success lies in our ability to achieve our goal of attracting others whilst remaining true to ourselves. I have developed a simple test for self-regulation which I call the madonna and child principle.
If your mother (the madonna) would be ashamed of whatever you are considering doing, or if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old (the child), or both, then don’t do it.
Effective leadership relies on a strong moral compass (the madonna test) and clarity of your intent (the child test). The madonna and child test preserves your integrity and, in tandem with my next and last “truth”, should enable you to make the most critical of development decisions and choices.
4 – BUY AN EGG TIMER
To understand who you are you need to reflect. Whilst you can think quickly, reflection takes time. I am not advocating a retreat or a long reflective walk, although I would if I thought you might do it. What I am advocating instead is developing an ability to think things through in the moment.
So buy an egg timer and put it on your desk. Don’t try to get away with a watch or a guess – there is something powerful in the novelty and physicality of the egg timer. It also helps you signal in a playful way to others around you that you are thinking and value this thinking time. When faced with a decision to make, turn over the egg timer.
Thanks for reading this and I hope we meet someday. And when we do, don’t worry about the “go be yo”, Emmanuel will do just fine, and if you struggle with that one, blame my parents and just call me E.