Leadership is the lifeblood of an organization. When leaders creates safe environments at work, everyone thrives and devotion is the natural response to those conditions. Toxic cultures breed cynicism, paranoia, and self-interest. I’ve experienced both, which is why I urge people to gauge the leadership of an organization prior to joining the company.
I wanted to learn about why people choose a journey of leadership. What does it take to be an effective leader, and why is it so challenging? Are leaders really born that way? To get the answers I tapped Simon Sinek on the shoulder because he knows a thing or two about leadership.
Simon is a student of leadership. He delivered one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, How great leaders inspire action, which has generated over 27 million views. He published Start With Why in 2011 (which the Ted Talk was based on) and in his recent NY Times Best Seller, Leaders Eat Last, he shares ideas and stories of how leaders can create environments where their people thrive.
“Why don’t more people choose to be a leader?” I naively asked Simon. He compares leadership to parenting, and since we recently had our first baby, I can relate! He explains that when you sign up for leadership, you are responsible for the lives of others, and it comes at great personal sacrifice. “It’s damn hard work! The risks are very real and when things go wrong, you have to take full responsibility. In both parenting and leadership, it’s difficult to measure the results on a day-to-day basis but if you stay the course you’ll see the impact over time.”
“It’s like exercise, where consistency is more important than intensity. You can’t go to the gym for nine hours and get in shape, but if you go for 20 minutes each day you’ll see progress over time. If you’re not seeing results you’re probably doing something wrong, and leadership is exactly the same way,” he asserted. He explains that the problem with leadership is that he doesn’t know when it’ll start working, and other people might recognize it in your first before you see it yourself.
We often hear about natural born leaders, but leadership is a skill like any other. There are a handful of leaders like John F. Kennedy and Herb Kelleher that may have been more advanced because of their upbringing, but leadership is like a muscle that needs to be developed. “We missed their early childhood and their early 20s when they were getting everything wrong. They all had mentors and they became great leaders, but none of them started that way!” Simon proclaimed.
Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head. I always assumed you need to be managing people to be considered a leader. Like parenting, everyone has the capacity to be a leader but not everyone should be. I recognized that just because you’re manager doesn’t mean you’re a leader.
"I know many people that sit at the highest levels of an organization who are not leaders. We do as they say because they have authority, but we would not follow them voluntarily. I know many leaders who sit at mid-ranks who have no authority and they’ve made a choice to look out for the people around them, and we would follow them anywhere,” Simon articulated.
Then, it hit me. Anyone can choose to begin a journey of leadership. It can begin by practicing empathy which is the foundation of leadership. For example, next time you’re in the office kitchen and the coffee pot is empty, make another pot, even if no one sees you doing it.
Simon shared his prescription, “Ask the barista how they’re doing, and actually care about the answer. Instead of saying thanks over email, give the person a hand-written thank you note expressing your gratitude. It takes a little bit more time and a little bit more energy, but the affect is tenfold. Practice small and the muscle builds. Like exercise, you’ll be able to lift heavier weight over time.”
Simon believes the biggest challenge in a journey of leadership is having courage. “When a CEO says they have to do something because of shareholder demands (who are essentially disinterested external constituents), it’s the equivalent of the coach on a team prioritizing the needs of the fans over the players. I can imagine the pressures from the board for CEOs to push for short-term gains, but it takes courage to stand up to that pressure because you may lose your job because of it,” he voiced.
A lack of courage can be a catalyst for leaders to create high stress environments. It causes people not to feel psychologically safe, which releases the hormone, cortisol. That hormone biologically inhibits empathy. “Bad leaders think pitting their people against each other makes them stronger. It breeds internal competition and a lack of psychological safety (threats, layoffs, or politics). You biologically drive the empathy right out of the organization,” Simon declared.
I realized that leadership is a craft you must work at over time. The risks are real, it’s incredibly hard, and it’s something that should be pursued with what Simon coined “a leadership buddy.” You need a sounding board when you’re making tough decisions because the leader is responsible for the well-being of others, often times before their own personal safety.
Simon eloquently described leadership in a way where I could visualize him on stage, raising his hands to frame his point and pumping his fist in front of an audience of thousands.
“Leadership is a responsibility. It’s not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge. Though you may have rank, that doesn’t make you a leader. We call you leader not because you’re at the top. We call you a leader because you chose to take the risk to go first; first into the unknown, first into the danger, to protect your people, and to help them achieve more than they thought they were capable of. That’s why we call you a leader and afford you the perks of leadership. It’s our way of saying thank you.”
Simon joked that work-life balance doesn’t imply how much yoga you do. He taught me that work-life imbalance is when you feel safe at home and you don’t feel safe at work, and we’ll never have balance until the leaders in the organization care about who we are. The good news? We can become leaders by making a choice.
“ Anyone can be the leader they wish they had. All they have to do is make different choices and the results are profound. The challenge is that you may not see the results within the quarter, or within the year,” he voiced.