Like any skill, becoming a great leader is simple in theory, but not an easy path. It’s a matter of identifying the key behaviors of great leaders, and practicing them intelligently and diligently until they have been mastered. So what is it that great leaders do that makes them so great at leading? In this article, I will weave together the various observations I’ve made on leadership into a unified prescription for developing yourself as a great leader called the 8-Fold Path to Enlightened Leadership.
Similar to the 8-Fold Path of Buddhism, the Enlightened Leadership Path is comprised of three logical stages derived from the definition of leader. I’ve previously defined a leader as “someone who discovers, develops, or imagines something new, and then influences people to make changes that make the new thing real.” The three stages of the 8-Fold Path correspond to the three main activities in this definition: Imagine, Inspire, and Innovate. The three stages and eight individual steps are illustrated in the following diagram and described in detail below.
The Imagine stage is all about coming up with the “big idea” – the something new that will positively affect people after you, as a leader, provide the spark to make it a reality. The three steps of this stage are to: 1) Listen, 2) Challenge Assumptions, and 3) Ideate.
“Almost everyone knows something or has some insight – listen before you speak.” – Father of David Boies, “Superlawyer”
1. Listen. Learning to listen is the most common advice given by seasoned leaders, and rightly so. As I noted in Do You Want to Know a Secret? Listen, “listening…lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. [It] fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.” Listening also has “many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative.” In the Imagine stage, it’s critical that your imagination be able to draw upon a vast array of ideas and concepts, things you can only have access to if you’ve “kept your ears open.” Of course, listening goes much deeper than just paying attention to others when they speak, true listeners express an openness and awareness that informs them at many levels. See the above article for more details and suggestions on how to develop your listening skills.
“When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” – Prof. Alois Xavier Schmidt, City College of New York
2. Challenge Assumptions. Challenging assumptions should be done of both your own ideas as well as others’. A simple way to do this is to get in the habit of repeating any statements of fact or opinion, adding the phrase “assuming ______,” and then filling in the blank. For example, “We can only build 1000 units, assuming our supplier can only ship one container of supplies.” Or, “Our competitor will only sell 10% of our sales volume this year, assuming they don’t lower their price point.” Once you get these assumptions out in the open like this, you should then challenge them. Why can’t you ask for more than one container, or switch suppliers? What’s stopping your competitor from lowering their prices? Challenging assumptions like this opens up possibilities and prepares you for full-bore brainstorming.
“Ideas are a dime-a-dozen, which leads to the intriguing implication that most ideas are worthless, and a precious few represent the nuggets we all search for.” – Chris LuVogt
3. Ideate. As I’ve noted previously, some people have a natural talent for immediately seeing the larger potential of great ideas, but this kind of ‘right-brained’ thinking does not come easily to everyone. Luckily, there are many ideation techniques that anyone can practice to formalize the process of developing and vetting ideas. I present one such framework in my two-part post on Thinking Big, namely the “Summarize, Generalize, Hypothesize, Synthesize, Prioritize, Evangelize” methodology. There are many other frameworks one can use to brainstorm, but the end goal of this step is to generate a realistic, substantial “game-changing” idea that you can then move forward with in the next two stages.
If you have a truly great idea, chances are you’ll need some help to make it real. The Inspire stage of the 8-Fold Path is all about developing the character you need to be able to convince others to jump on your bandwagon. According the model of great leadership I developed in Earning the Leadership Merit Badge, character is the distinguishing feature between an effective leader and a great one. The three steps of this stage revolve around developing the following three key skills and character traits: 4) Mastery, 5) Respect, and 6) Passion. Taken together, these give you the authenticity and integrity to be truly compelling, so you don’t have to rely solely on others seeing the merits of your big idea in isolation.
“If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up.” – Father of Ron Johnson, CEO JC Penney
4. Mastery. Mastery provides the legitimacy you need in order to establish a fundamental bond with the people on your team. Let’s face it, if you’re trying to lead a group of people, but you have nothing in common with them, then you have nothing on which to build trust and commitment. Mastery, most critically of the core competency that gives your team its competitive advantage (engineering for engineers, selling for sales, etc.), goes an incredibly long way towards giving you both the “street cred” to lead, as well as the necessary fundamental skills to execute during Stage 3 (Innovate). It allows you to dive deep when problems arise, applying that attention to detail that your followers expect and deserve. As I said in The 4 Principles of Great Leader-Chefs, true masters do not just practice what they know and hold themselves to high standards of excellence, but they also challenge the prevailing assumptions and try to improve both their practice of the craft as well as the definition of the craft itself. In this way, they always maintain legitimacy and relevance, and the ability to lead others.
“People should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title do not reflect the true merits of a person.” – Mother of Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines
5. Respect. Whereas mastery engenders respect from followers, it is critically important for a leader to return the favor. This kind of respect for others should be the default behavior of anyone who desires to lead, towards everyone they work with. It reflects a deep-seated attitude that assumes everyone deserves an opportunity to discover how their strengths can best contribute to the overall success of the team. It doesn’t mean that non-contributors get a free ride. Rather, it means everyone gets a fair chance to shine. Respect and compassion go hand-in-hand, and one of the easiest ways to learn them is a simple mental practice I mentioned in The Waiting is the Mindful Part – simply randomly (and silently) wishing happiness for the people you meet or even just see. You can start doing this just once or twice a day, but because it is so addicting, eventually it will become such a habit, you’ll do it for everyone.
“You should do what you’re good at, and do what you love.” – Danny Meenan, Reporter
6. Passion. Passion is a simple thing – if you’re not doing or thinking about something in your “down time,” you’re not passionate about it. Passion is not something that can be faked, and without it, you will lack the integrity necessary to keep followers for very long. You’ll also lack the driving force necessary to keep you striving for your goal. Ask yourself, “If there was no external force keeping me engaged, would I still be doing this?” If the answer is “No,” you might as well stop now and save yourself and your follower’s time – you’re not being authentic and true to your inner self.
So you’ve discovered something great and inspired a team to help you create it – how do you move forward and actually innovate? What techniques can you use to execute and make your idea a reality? The last two steps of the 8-fold Path are there to help you make things happen: 7) Leverage Strengths while Understanding Limitations, and 8 ) Challenge Yourself and Others.
“Develop your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don’t possess and that you need to build a world-class organization.” – Warren Bennis, Scholar
7. Leverage Strengths while Understanding Limitations. Strengths and limitations apply to both yourself and those you are leading. As Jim Collins classically put it in Good to Great, you not only have to get the right people on the bus, but you have to make sure they’re sitting in the right seats. Great leaders are always evaluating their followers and determining whether skills and strengths match roles and responsibilities. As I said in Synthesize, Prioritize, Evangelize, “Not everyone on the idea-backing team should also be on the implementation team. Make sure that any backer you carry over has the requisite skills, knowledge, passion, and/or position of authority to be able to contribute.” This represents another situation where awareness and listening, without judgment, play key roles. Great leaders develop a habit of constantly measuring the performance of both themselves and their teams, understanding how roles need to change over time, and not hesitating to rebalance what people (including themselves) work on, in order to play to their strengths and not expose them to situations that expose their limitations.
“You can’t always control what happens to you…but you can control how you respond – you should never quit.” – Mother of John Hickenlooper, Gov. of Colorado
8. Challenge Yourself and Others. Great leaders have three characteristics that keep them and their teams moving towards their goal: Decisiveness, Impatience, and Persistence. Decisiveness sets the direction of movement, impatience sets the pace of movement, and persistence sets the expectation of the achievement of the goal. The leader sets all three of these for themselves and their team, dynamically and in such a way as to ensure forward progress. The best leaders are ones who have practiced decision making to the point where they are comfortable making decisions nearly instantly, who have a bias for action developed by always assuming that positive steps can and should be taken, and who have practiced failing or hitting roadblocks but continuing anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, meditation is one particularly effective way to train this last characteristic, persistence. Leaders who exhibit these traits are the ones that push their own limits and the limits of their team, challenging all involved to be their best, without overtaxing anyone.
Taking the Path
Although the three stages and their individual steps roughly follow each other sequentially, it should be clear that some or all of the activities in each stage or step will overlap with those in other stages and steps. In the above diagram, this sequencing is implied by the arrows leading from the top to the bottom of the diagram.
I’ve tried to give practical suggestions for most of the steps, but I consider this just the beginning of the development of this model. In future articles, I hope to flesh out each of the steps in more detail. Any suggestions or pointers are more than welcome. And for pointers on how to practice (in general), I highly recommend Jesse Bridgewater’s Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect.