Ending the search for leadership’s secret ingredient

To quote “Po” the star of “Kung Fu Panda” – “there is no secret ingredient, it’s just you”. We are sometimes tempted to search for a secret ingredient that makes a good leader. You may see the qualities of great leaders listed, or summaries of behaviour such as “followers talk about problems, leaders talk about solutions”. The implication of this approach is that if only you can emulate these qualities, you too will be a great leader. The good news is, that’s rubbish. Good news, because if it were true that leadership is some magical list of personal qualities, none of us would be able to develop it – we would be born leaders or we would not be leaders at all. Indeed some might argue that it suits existing leaders to suggest that in fact there is something special about them. After all, that would justify the enormous rewards that some corporate leaders get, but that’s another story.

I’m not decrying great leadership – it’s an incredibly powerful thing and can indeed transform organisations. What I’m questioning is the idea that leading requires a list of personal qualities, combined in a particular way. In fact, leadership arises when people are drawn to follow someone. It is also contextual – a great leader is just another shopper when they’re in the supermarket, whereas in their organisation they are clearly the leader. Leadership then isn’t created by leaders, it’s created by the context, and the interaction between the whole group – both a leader and their followers. If no one chooses to follow you, how much of a leader are you? If it were all about behaviours we could turn Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr Bean” into a great leader simply by asking him to behave in a certain way. The ludicrous nature of that idea makes it clear that we co-create leadership; followers influence leaders as much as leaders influence followers.

So what? So several things. First, if leadership is something we all have the capacity for, why do we sometimes romanticise it so? Second, if we all have leadership potential, why not grasp it with both hands next time you have the chance? The only way you’ll learn is by doing it. Finally, why do we fall for trite simplifications of the complex process of human interaction that creates leadership, in the hope that following them will somehow turn us into Winston Churchill (who by the way, had his share of unpleasant and unhelpful personal qualities, but is still regarded as a great leader).

There is no need for any of us to fear or romanticise leadership, or to suppose that we aren’t capable of it. Neither are we set in stone as leaders once we have achieved that capacity, when the context changes it might be entirely appropriate for someone else to lead (some animals do this, for example horses will follow a herd member who has a particular talent for finding water, then switch leaders when they need to find fresh grass to a horse with that ability). Leadership is there to help a group galvanise the meaning it makes of the world, and coalesce around a goal. It’s not magic. We are all capable of it, and the only people served by those who would have you believe it’s something special are those seeking to make money from it.