The art of leadership.

I’m passionate about the art of leadership—and it is an art, which means defining and measuring it can be very subjective. That’s because leadership is only partly about things, like systems, data, and objectives, and mostly about people, whose unique experiences and personal passions make them both invaluable assets and impossible to manage using a one-size-fits-all approach. Projects are important. People—from vendors to employees to customers—matter most.

A small leadership library.

Consider some of my favorite books on the subject: Good to Great by Jim Collins, Taking People With You by David Novak, and Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last. After analyzing more than 1,400 companies over a 40-year period, Collins deftly determines that effective leadership includes core skills in capability, teamwork, organization, and vision. But the capstone of his truly great, “Level 5 leader”—a rarity even among successful CEOs—is humility. L5 leaders value each person they interact with, and conscientiously address their individual needs even while getting all the other jobs done.

Collins’s analysis matches Novak’s experience. As CEO of Yum! Brands, Novak says genuine leadership includes “getting to know people”. In other words, genuinely connecting with every team member and cultivating “customer mania” in the organization. This correlates with Sinek, anthropologist turned marketing guru, who advises us to think long-term and build a culture of trust through sacrifice. To truly lead, we must forego short-term gains if they undermine long-term value; we must put others, especially our team members and customers, first; and we must eat last, only after our tribe is fed and feels safe.

This kind of leadership is rare because it requires hard things. Sacrifices cannot be merely symbolic. Personal interest cannot be pretended. Humility cannot be feigned. These attributes take a lifetime of consistent effort to develop and to fully realize. But the results are well worth it, as these leader-authors demonstrate again and again. And my own personal journey confirms their findings.

What leaderships looks like … for me.

I’m what career coaches call a “synthesizer”, which means I love improving processes and bringing out the best in people. So, some aspects of L5 leadership are natural and intuitive for me; others, I’ve learned by study and practice. I’ve worked for some exceptional leaders, who mentored and encouraged my own leadership efforts. (I’ve learned from some negative examples, too). I find I’m happiest when I forget myself and go to work, trying to accomplish objectives by genuinely working with people, and not in spite of them.

I might also add some personal insight (which is heartfelt if not entirely original): you can lead from anywhere, regardless of formal position or title. Showing patient support for a first-time manager or helping a colleague meet a difficult deadline is, in itself, an act of leadership, just as valuable as setting departmental goals and directing day-to-day activity. I’ve ended up in leadership positions at every workplace, from my very first job, dishing out ice cream after school, to my current role as marketing director. Some of those roles were “earned” by experience, but in my younger days, it seemed like pure luck. I now realize that my natural interest in helping people learn and making processes better meant that I was “leading” even as a new hire or “grunt”—and bosses tend to recognize and reward those habits.

I believe that life will offer everyone the chance to lead, probably many chances. Sometimes it will be an expected or longed-for experience; and sometimes we’ll simply have leadership thrust upon us. So, we should embrace it. Where possible, we should get a “leadership education” (which is something like a liberal arts education). That might include books from Collins or Sinek about business leadership, books from Gladwell and Pink about thinking differently, and even classics from American literature about what people want and need and how to help them.

But above all, we must learn to love the people we serve—colleagues, coworkers, direct reports, and bosses. As we become genuinely interested in them, seek their counsel, and encourage their development, leadership will naturally follow.