This article is an adapted excerpt from Les McKeown’s book, Do Lead.
Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:
Let’s start with the dirty little secret of leadership: it happens all the time, almost anywhere you look, and it’s frankly not that difficult.
Perhaps you were expecting something a little more…well, challenging?
That’s not surprising, because for the last, oh, three millennia – in fact, since an unknown Homo erectus first did a Banksy on a cavern wall – we’ve been pretty much preoccupied as a society with the idea of heroic leadership.
You know, the Neanderthal who slays the sabre-toothed tiger, Odysseus, Napoleon, the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, Captain Sully – all that good stuff.
Which is fine. It makes for good reading and an endless source of uplifting quotes (great for use in motivational posters and filling all that white space left over on your team-building PowerPoint slide).
The problem is that we’ve become so accustomed to leadership being defined as heroic by journalists or historians looking for a good story that we've lost the ability to see true leadership for what it really is: an almost always un-glorious, headline-free, mundane activity that takes place every minute of every day in uncountable different (albeit prosaic) ways.
Compare and Contrast
On the day I wrote this chapter, the first ‘leadership’ stories I encountered during my usual, fairly random, media consumption were as follows:
— A profile of a 46-year-old ‘whizz-kid’ CEO from a hip, funky, brand-name organization who has redefined the concept of leadership in his company based on, wait for it, his favorite sports coaching heroes.
— The CIO of a Fortune 500 company tells a leadership conference that she ‘wakes up every morning filled with excitement about what my team of more than 1,200 employees aims to do for the day and with a drive to apply my knowledge to my best potential’.
— An academic who has taken a sabbatical to study the challenges of leadership in modern society reports that they have identified them to be ‘Technology and Information’, ‘Resilience’, ‘Well-Being’, ‘Disruptive Innovation’ and something they call ‘Environmental Scanning’.
Notice how all of these stories follow the same narrative arc: the assumption that leadership must somehow be, however vaguely, connected to wisdom, or bravery, or celebrity, or scale, or great achievement – something, anything, that adds an heroic tinge.
It’s hard to feel that any of these well-reported stories have any real relevance to how most of us spend our time, day to day, in the real world.
Now let me share with you the first few actual acts of leadership I encountered on the same day:
— Our team had to head out at 8.30am for a client meeting. My wife rose before dawn to get her gym visit in early, so our shared car would be available for my team to use on time.
— During a coaching call, a client made a commitment to me that for one week she would not interrupt others during her team’s discussions and would allow her colleagues to fully finish their thoughts before expressing her own opinion.
— During a meeting at a local coffee shop, I watched as a barista stopped cleaning table tops and jumped in to assist a colleague when the line became lengthy.
Notice a difference between the media-reported stories and these real-world acts of leadership?
As I've said, Storytelling requires a narrative arc, and reporting on leadership is no different – there needs to be a hero, or a villain, or a winner, or a loser (or a video of a cute cat, at the very least).
Fair enough, magazines and newspapers need to sell copies, websites need visitors, and none of them will garner much interest with stories like ‘Spouse Returns Car to Husband at 8.15am’.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against heroic leadership. In fact, because of my job coaching senior executives I get to see more of it than most people, and watching leaders do incredible things under stress or navigate themselves and others through difficult situations regularly reduces me to a blubbering mess.
But that doesn’t mean we should take the ‘hero-as-leader’ template as our only, or even our main, model of leadership.
Real-world leadership is most typically understated – often to the point of going unseen by most people.
Real-world leadership is most often prosaic, mundane, unspectacular.
In fact, if you glanced casually through the examples of real-world leadership I gave earlier, you probably wrinkled your brow and wondered how they could be defined as acts of leadership at all.
What on earth elevates the making of coffee for a waiting line of customers to the level of leadership – isn’t that just someone doing their job?
Bringing a car back on time for someone else to use it? Isn’t that just a common act of courtesy?
And the executive who decided to try buttoning her lip and let others speak for a change – she’s surely just trying to be less of a jerk, no?
What Leadership Is
Well, it depends, of course, on how we define ‘leadership’. If ‘heroic’ leadership is a valid concept, but gives us the wrong (i.e. too narrow) perspective on what ‘everyday’ leadership is, what then should our definition of leadership be?
Here’s my take – one which I’ve honed from 35 years of working with leaders (heroic and otherwise), and from engaging in occasional acts of leadership myself:
"Leadership is helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals."
"Leadership is helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success
Not very complicated, I admit, but it’s a robust definition that has served me and the people and organizations I work with well over the years, and if you revisit my examples of real-world leadership above, every one of them fits the bill precisely - the individual concerned did something that helped a group of people get closer to achieving their common goals - my work team; my clients peer group; the coffee shop shift workers.
Try it out. Take the 'Do Lead' definition of leadership out for a spin and see how it plays in your organization. I promise you it will revolutionize how leadership is viewed and acted upon.