Business & Leadership

The Roots of leadership: secret ingredients revealed (Part II)

Some people change the world whilst others live the easy life, taking daily events in their stride. The most successful figures revolutionize their sector, their environment, their country. Whether it’s Xavier Niel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, what are the secrets to leadership?

Some people change the world whilst others live the easy life, taking daily events in their stride. The most successful figures revolutionize their sector, their environment, their country. Whether it’s Xavier Niel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, what are the secrets to leadership?

1- The ambition, personal and collective, to prevail

To move mountains, a leader needs the fire of personal and collective ambition. That’s a potent combination.


a) Personal ambition

Personal ambition, it’s the courage to aim high. It’s having the pride to undertake a noble cause, to be ready to defend it even if you are the only one that will, to believe when no-one else believes. To believe before anyone else. You need to have a strong inner flame, an unwavering personal conviction to initiate a dynamic collective.


Ambition, it’s bravery in the face of renunciations: having the character not to take the easy road or half-measures. It is the antidote to half-heartedness, to hopes and dreams never acted upon. Indeed, having real ambition, and acting on it, is also a personal characteristic that reinforces respect for others, and produces, under numerous conditions, that special chemistry we call cohesion.


Do not take ambition in itself to mean egotism. Ambition can be selfish or selfless: the ambition to advance a great cause is not a selfish one. Martin Luther King did not seek a seat in Congress for personal glory. He did it in the name of civil rights. He was ready to sacrifice everything to this cause: his own situation came a distant second to the cause. The vision followed justified the sacrifice, personally and often in terms of family.


Beyond the great figures of politics, business leaders are themselves capable of great sacrifice in the service of their companies, clients and staff. Bill George, the tireless former chairman of Medtronic, spent his life turning the company into a giant in the medical device field (the artificial heart etc.): his motivation was to save as many lives as possible, through medical technologies, and not to make more money.


When ambition is egotistical, selfish, and lacking in sacrifice, the leader exerts no leadership, no moral authority, promotes no cohesion, and so has little or no impact. It is important to point out here that the successful following of one’s ambition can bring significant benefits (pay) that do not speak to the egotism of individual. Indeed, if everyone wins and if the returns are considerable, politically or financially speaking, it is normal and right that the leader also have his fair share. If his motivation is uniquely pecuniary or politically motivated, even if it equitable, the leader will lack persuasion. Only an intrinsic motivation has the power to stir the masses.


b) Collective ambition

The leader is the first follower (!) of a grand cause, of a grand collective ambition. He is the “servant leader,” because he is the servant in chief of the cause defended, and the leader of the people who converge, naturally or by his actions, to defend it.


Personal ambition must be combined with a capacity to formulate collective ambition. It falls to the leader to provide clarity, words, but also objectives, steps, an action plan. A leader is a manager with a collective-leaning heart and mind. The leader gives words, ways and means to the collective ambition, and even incarnates it. He strives always show a good example, even if to err is human.


The weight of words, the clash of worlds: whether channeling the collective interest, or what’s inside your head, you need a noble sentiment to herald, one that encapsulates your vision, (“I have a dream”), and expresses both optimism and realism regarding the battle to realize this collective ambition. Each member of the group being involved, motivated and available to varying degrees, you need to crystalize with words, symbols, victories, injustices, opportunities, the common cause, the shared benefits. But it’s easier said than done, and aligning personal ambition and latent collective ambition is a considerable feat which requires numerous talents. When faced with an obstacle or attempting to make common cause, you need to put forward the principle of shared ambition with certain determined members of your group and equally give ambition to those in whom it is lacking, who nevertheless have a latent interest, however deflated or misunderstood that interest is.


2- Self-confidence combined with a capacity for self-doubt    

Dare we claim that self-confidence is a secret ingredient of leadership? No. Self-confidence is a well-known ingredient.


What’s less well-known is the effect produced when doubt and confidence meet. A leader needs this improbable combination if he is to succeed.


Overconfidence or relentless self-confidence is a massive trap that numerous winners (or rather one-time winners) fall foul of. A wise man once said that you shouldn’t let success go to your head or failure to your heart. Victory, whilst it confers prestige and acceptance, is not conducive to self-examination.


To submit to relentless self-confidence, whether with blind sincerity or ostensibly for the greater good presents another unfortunate drawback: it tends to repel. After all, who loves a strutting cock, a know it all, a flawless monolithic hero? Not many. The risk you take by being overconfident is not only to fail against your adversaries, but also to lose the locker room by dispiriting or alienating those you lead.


The secret ingredient is mixing in the right measure of doubt to your self-confidence. The desire to rally the troops, to move towards the objective, and to conquer must be unwavering. But the method, the means and ways, the ‘who’ and the ‘when’ are the objects of continual doubt and tactical assessment. Such doubt is conscious and orchestrated, or distressful and tormenting, often all these things at once.


Gandhi began his struggle in South Africa as a lawyer in a lawyer’s getup. Afterwards he came to embody the cause of the poor of India clothing himself in their traditional, stripped-down garments. He had legal cunning, but also worked the media by carrying out his hunger strike, or engaging in the ferocious and peaceful battle of values.  


Doubt is an incredible ally, when it is not a powerful break on action. Often, it is an incredible ally precisely because it is a check on excessive action, a risky move or a waste of resources on lost causes. What racing driver could cross the finish line in first place without the supreme skill of knowing the exact moment to step on the accelerator (confidence) or hit the brakes (doubt)?


What’s more, a debate rages on: should we doubt in secret without owning up to our doubts for fear of appearing weak or indecisive? The truth is, once again, not black and white.


To doubt everything, in front of everyone, cannot but lead to worries about our course of action and about us as individuals. To ‘doubt,’ however, or simply put to ask those close to you for their input, is the best way forward, leading to a high degree of involvement, showing you value their expertise, removing blind spots and weeding out bad ideas. Of course, it’s a good idea to open up to a hand-picked group whose skills you value. Theme by theme, it’s in front of this or that expert, that we should reveal our inner conflict. Then, when the time comes to express confidence publically, to put up a united front, the leader’s self-confidence shines through. A strong confidence, but one which remains watchful and receptive, and not blind.  


3- Listening: Be the man who listens, the man of words. Be the spokesman, with your own voice.

A leader who speaks out is, paradoxically, often the one who takes the most time to listen. With an active ear, eclectically, listening to his own inner voice as well as to those of his colleagues.


Listening means more than just lending someone an ear. It is an orchestrated dialogue. It is an exchange of convictions. It is the patient building of consensus and having the courage to tackle the “dis-sensus.” You need to manage the “dia-logos,” that is to say the two-way conversation, like discussions, when “dis-cutare,” implies a divergence, initially at least.        


But to listen also means to really open your ears:  It takes a rare humility to not to nurture a pre-determined position which hinders the exchange or enrichment by the other. Whether in service of a common cause or out of respect, to forget your initial standpoint, or to entwine it with the best ideas of others, is quite an art.       


Listening is also to provide a subtle and powerful filter, that must bring to the surface the best analyses, the kaleidoscope of emotions and fears.


The stating of risks, the stream of options, the song of ambitions and the lament of renunciations beginning.


How to react to each signal, to each voice? Every member of the group has his piece of wisdom, carries a torch for, or has a warning about, something, whether rightly or wrongly. It’s here where the subtle filter is doubly effective: the listener keeps the best information and silently discards the useless. But in parallel, the listener also gives and responds with information and emotion, because everything is useful to someone, and when it comes to interpersonal relations.


Whilst still remaining the man who listens and discusses, humble and open to suggestion, the leader is also a man of his word, who will not betray the precious social contract, even before external obstacle or inner doubt. He is a man of his word in his devotion to the collective ambition just as he is in his promise to listen. He has to listen, but not be swayed by doubt, even when examining the very foundations.


Finally, although a spokesperson, the leader still speaks with his own voice. In fact his personal ambition is placed at the service of a cause, to find the best course of action by undertaking an inner journey, giving him a unique and distinct role. A strong authority. And his efforts at dialogue with the group, his colleagues and other individuals adds to his legitimacy as spokesperson. Individual ambition comes to be joined with collective ambition. Personal authority is careful to ally itself with the legitimacy of the collective.


4- The art of relationship building

Whether building an economic empire or a political force, the leader builds relationships of great trust, on a very large scale. How to build trusting relationships? “Relations” come from links: common destinies, common personal history, shared efforts and dreams, etc. “Trust” comes from faith: the relationship is built upon one’s faith in the other, that intangible bedrock. This faith is not blind. But it is strong, lucid and optimistic, and believes in the best of the other, rather than in their demons. Above all the relationship is built on support, freely given, and not submission. It’s the promise of a benevolent hearing and work for the common interest.


Once the relationship is established, a bond is forged, invisible yet tangible, ready to support the strain of disagreements and interests that diverge regularly with the constant onslaught of new situations.


How to explain this trust, this link that remains in spite of differences? Mutual respect is the glue, solidified by listening. Empathy, that art of being able to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, adds a secret seal. The other component, being able to align different interests: being able to pick up on unspoken gestures that cause hurt, official objectives, those unwilling to listen, and with patience, and with tact, align interests, treat differences of opinion with respect, and find common ground.


A leader knows how to choose his words and when to compromise. But he knows too when the stakes or his values brook no compromise.


Consciously or not, a trusting relationship is based on some shared values. But the most noble, is above all that the leader respects the values of each individual, even when he does not share them: he knows the red lines of others and takes care to avoid pointless provocations and arguments. Finally, most profoundly for himself, the leader is altruistic, a word heavy with significance, because it implies a little-seen willingness to be ready to make sacrifices for others. There you have it, the invisible framework of trusting relationships.



Author: Pierre Lorenceau

Translator: Simon McGeady



This article is taken from our monthly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.


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