Learning How to Lead: Part 3

Genuine leadership isn’t a formula. It’s personal.

I’ve gained a lot of experience as a leader since joining eyeo. Most of it has been tactical, like hiring, developing talent, establishing processes, and unblocking things that get in the way of progress. Some of it has been strategic, like developing a vision for the product team, driving innovation, and setting priorities. But I still have a hard time defining what kind of leader I want to be, beyond all the things that need to get done. So, I started working with a personal coach to help me develop further.

The coach sent me a list of questions before our first session, just to get a baseline. They were difficult to answer, since I couldn’t really answer any of them unequivocally. During our session, she asked me to define what a good leader looks like, or if I had any role models in mind. Apparently, I really don’t know how to define leadership beyond vague American stereotypes, and I honestly can’t think of any leaders that actually inspire me (especially present day). I admire a few traits here an there, but no one person embodies the full expression of leadership that resonates with me.

That’s when it occurred to me: To develop further, I shouldn’t be trying so hard to copy somebody else, just because I think that’s what people expect from me. Fuck listicles. Fuck how-to manuals. Fuck role models. Fuck whatever I think other people think. Most especially, fuck any standards depicted in popular culture. What’s my genuine expression of leadership?

Again, it’s hard for me to answer this question. All those opinions and depictions and past experiences suggest that I can never be a good leader. I’m antisocial, not especially charismatic, hate being the center of attention, refuse to network, and I really, really don’t like telling people what to do. The quintessential image of the “strong”, bold, confident leader that commands a stage, publicly eviscerates incompetence, and regularly rubs elbows with powerful people makes me want to puke. To me, that just screams “self absorbed, egotistical asshole that needs to prove how awesome they are, all the fucking time.” I reject that template entirely.

But I’m just now starting to embrace the idea that I don’t have to be/do any of those things — that it’s possible to be an effective leader, and still be genuinely me.

After thinking a lot about this, some themes have started to emerge. They have nothing to do with external traits (like “charisma”), but have everything to do with internal values.

Here are some examples:

A leader serves those in their charge first, their superiors second, and themselves last.

A leader shouts praise for others from the rooftop, but delivers a rebuke behind closed doors.

A leader welcomes criticism, but eschews recognition.

A leader is always the first one on the battlefield, and the last one at the watering hole.

A leader knows when to be gentle, when to be harsh, when to be flexible, and when to be firm.

A leader can motivate others without demanding anything.

A leader would rather fail together than succeed alone.

A leader plans for both wild success and total failure.

A leader may not know the right answer, but they always know the right questions to ask.

A leader surrounds themself with people more intelligent, skilled, and talented than they are.

A leader sees the patterns and pitfalls others cannot.

A leader knows two things at any given moment: their own weakness, and the potential of everyone they lead

A leader makes plenty of mistakes, just never the same mistake twice.

+++++

If I could become just half the leader described above, that would be enough for me. The important thing is that I identify with the description above personally. Others will have to define their own leadership style.

So, how would you describe the leader you want to be? I encourage you to embrace your own definition before trying to fit someone else’s. Otherwise you’ll end up becoming just another Listicle Leader.