What do you think of when you imagine a leader in action? Someone standing in front of a group riding a wave of enthusiasm as they present the next best thing or the fantastic results of the last year? Someone giving speeches to crowds encouraging a better world? Maybe you imagine someone confidently wading through the mire of everyday life handing out solutions left and right without missing a beat.
I’ve imagined all of these things and many more similar scenarios when I think about leaders in action. I’ve learned though that this notion of leadership is far from the truth. Not because these things never happen, they do, but moments like the ones I mentioned above make up a very small percentage of what leaders do.
It is easy to imagine that great leaders always know what to do, always have the answer, are always correct. I would dial it back a bit and say that maybe leaders often know what to do, often have the answer, and often are correct. But that isn’t what makes them leaders. It is simply a byproduct of their leadership. The true action of leadership lies elsewhere.
So what then does a leader in action look like?
- A leader in action is working hard. Some people make it look easy, but I have never spoken to someone who has told me it actually is. The ones who make it look easy are usually the ones who have worked the hardest. They have put in the prep time, the late nights. They have thought about every angle, possible obstacles and objections, and they are prepared. They lose sleep over it. They sweat over it. A leader works hard, and that is what brings about moments of seemingly effortless success.
The sports world makes a great analogy here. Let’s use the example of gymnastics. A competitor may be on the floor being judged for a total of 10-15 minutes. But when you watch that 10-15 minutes of effort and passion, grace and strength, you don’t see the countless hours of practice over years that brought the gymnast to that point. You see the result. But without that work, there would be no success.
- Leaders are learning. Look at the best at anything, any sport or field. Do any of the people who come to mind think they know it all? That they have reached perfection? Quite the opposite. Leaders are always looking for better, more efficient, more impactful. Leaders are always trying new things, which means that leaders are always failing. There is no company that doesn’t product test, to try to make themselves fail in pursuit of a better product. Failure, properly understood and learned from, is one of a leader’s greatest assets.
I can only speak for myself but when I look back at my life and my leadership journey I have to attribute my greatest qualities, my greatest moments of learning, to my greatest failures. They weren’t fun. They hurt like hell. They were confusing and disheartening. But through them I learned and developed in ways that no success could bring. The worst thing to do with a mistake is waste it. Learn from it. Grow from it.
I think of it this way. Farmers use what to fertilize their fields? Manure, crap,….stuff. So let the stuff in your life be what fuels your growth to new heights. It’s hard, but it’s worth every minute of effort and pain.
- Leaders are humble. Contrary to popular belief, humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself. It simply means thinking about yourself less. The best leaders don’t seek the spotlight, they seek results. They don’t care where the results come from, whose idea it was. They remain focused on the vision and pursue that goal above all else. They take the ego out of the eqation. A leader knows that no one achieves greatness alone. No single person has ever climbed Everest. It takes a team. Sometimes the team is not very visible, but when you see someone in the spotlight, you can bet they didn’t get there alone. The best leaders know this and will always give abundant credit to their team, and they are always eager to show their gratitude.
These three things are not exclusive. There are more things that leaders do, these are just a solid core to build those other actions upon. Remember leadership is a journey not a destination. If you focus on bettering yourself, results will come.