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4 Kinds of Leadership

2013 February 27
by Greg Satell

Peter Drucker once said that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  My father had a more practical view, he used to tell me that “a leader is one who has followers.” (If you think about it for a second, it’s wiser than it first appears).

It seems that almost everybody has their own view of what a leader is and how to go about being a good one, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious formula.  Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi were both unquestionably great leaders, but couldn’t have been more different.

The truth is, there is no one path to leadership.  The personalities of great leaders are as diverse as people can possibly have.  Their one commonality is that they are distinct individuals, unmistakable for anyone but themselves.  And therein lies their secret, they forge their own path, even when they themselves might not know where they are going.

1. Visionary Leaders

When we think of great leaders, the strong ones come to mind:  Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs or even Joseph Stalin.  They all knew where they wanted to go and inspired others to follow.  They were unrelenting, revolutionary and unwavering.

Consequently, strong leaders tend to have as least as many detractors as they do advocates.  They often emerge in a crisis, when all is uncertain and people are looking for someone who can provide a clear sense of direction.  They create a strong sense of purpose and often attract a cult-like following.

However, when things go wrong with a visionary, they go really wrong.  Jeffery Skilling at Enron had a vision.  So did Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom.  Both were responsible for historic flameouts.  It seems that big ideas end in disaster at least as frequently as they lead to success.  Visionary leaders are hailed; then often reviled.

The problem, of course, is it is often hard to tell the difference between a bold vision and a wacky scheme.

2. Quiet Leaders

When we think of great leaders, it is the visionary, charismatic ones that come to mind. However, in Good to Great, management guru Jim Collins points out that some of the most successful leaders demonstrate “a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation and never boastful.”

He call these level 5 leaders and they are behind some great success stories.  Collins points to men like Darwin Smith at Kimberly Clark, Colman Mockler at Gillette and George Cain at Abbott Labs, who kept low profiles (indeed, none of those three even have Wikipedia profiles), but built powerhouse companies.

Interestingly, he suggests that these leaders succeed in part because they do not resemble our conception of great leaders.  They are not personally ambitious, but put their organization first.  Rather than trying to mold the enterprise in their own image, they make their own identity subservient to that of the organization.

Collins suggests that there is no shortage of Level 5 leaders.  Unfortunately, however, they are often passed over in favor of those who excel at self promotion.

3. Leaderless Leaders

Great leadership has long been identified with great organizations.  So it is a curious fact that some highly regarded management thinkers have started to question the need for leaders at all.  Moreover, they have found highly successful organizations that thrive without leaders.

Gary Hamel, for example, wrote a highly cited article in Harvard Business Review about Morning Star, a top food processing company that functions entirely without managers. In a similar vein, Harvey Seifter has studied the world renowned Orpheus Orchestra that has operated successfully without a conductor for decades.

While I don’t think a leaderless structure is right for every organization, I do believe that the fact that they exist calls into question much of the conventional wisdom about leadership.  As I’ve written before, the lunatics run the asylum, management’s role is to help them run it right.

4. Lost Leaders

Of course, not all leaders are good.  Some are ineffective because they do not know where they want to go and the primary function is to provide direction.  Others are power hungry and act for their own rather than for those that they are leading.

Most of the bad leaders that I have come across get that way because they take the wrong lessons from reknowned leaders.  They want to emulate what makes famous leaders notorious, rather than what makes them effective.

I remember some years back, when the movie The Devil Wears Prada, based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour, came out and I watched it with a few friends who worked for me. One was a fashion magazine editor and the film left her starry-eyed.  Over the next few months, I saw her transform and not for the better.

She eventually became a successful editor in her own right, running a major international brand and becoming a staple on glamourous interview shows, but she never evolved into an effective leader.

Being a jerk doesn’t make you Steve Jobs, it just makes you a jerk.

The Essence of Leadership

In the end, it isn’t the style of leadership that counts, but its effectiveness.  Joseph Nye, in his book Soft Power, notes that strong leadership gives you the power to get what you want without coercion.  Anybody that must continually rely on position, regulation or procedure in order to compel action isn’t leading, merely giving orders.

Being in a position of responsibility means that you have to make decisions without all the facts, in a rapidly changing context.  You do so in the full knowledge that if you are wrong, you will bear the blame and no one else.  You can never be certain of your decision, only that it is you who has to make one.

That’s a hard bridge to cross and many, if not most, are never quite able to get there.  I think that’s why we admire great leaders so much.  True authority doesn’t come from a job title or even from great success, it comes from strength of character so inherent that it inspires others to surrender themselves to a greater cause.

And that’s why we revere great leaders, not so much because of what they accomplish, but because of what they reveal about our better selves.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Kuldip Singh permalink
    February 28, 2013

    Somebody once said, ‘ In order to be able to lead, you must be able to follow.” Which is why I am following your blog!

  2. February 28, 2013

    And I appreciate it!

    – Greg

  3. March 1, 2013

    always worth reading.. keep up the hard work



  4. March 2, 2013

    Thx James:-)

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