The Sources of Leadership

We all know the classic ingredients of leadership; charisma, vision, loyalty, flexibility, a system of values, etc. Knowing them is one thing, mastering them something else entirely. Other than these well-known characteristics, what are the deeper sources of leadership?

Posted Monday, July 2nd 2018
The Sources of Leadership

1) Daring and Perseverance

To be daring in such and uncertain world – is that the mark of and unwavering leader?

When the present weighs heavily, a leader finds the time to think of the future and to believe in it. He finds the courage to think differently, to do things his own way.

Paroxically, to dare is, in fact, a prudent move. Doing things in the same way as others will only guarantee you get lost in the crowd. In fact doing things like others is taking the biggest risk. To be daring, in an intelligent way, will ensure you remain an influential leader.

Daring is a mix of reason and intuition, of reasonable courage, irrational ambition and personal conviction that gives you the added edge.  Without reason, daring is all show and no substance. Without intuition daring is merely a cheap publicity stunt.

Without perseverance, daring is nothing. It’s only a whim, a straw fire that’s sure to fizzle out. Without perseverance, it is a foolhardy endeavor. Daring and perseverance are two rare ingredients and to make an impression on the world, you need both working together.

Perseverance is a fundamental quality of leadership. Could Gandhi have inspired India to shake off the yoke of British Imperialism without dedicating his whole life to the cause? Could Steve Jobs have revolutionized the world of IT without having the fortitude to overcome numerous setbacks?   

Edison confessed that the electric light bulb was a success only after a hundred tries. Each try – each failure we might say – was a tempting opportunity to give up. But Edison chose to go on, to learn from each attempt in order to finally succeed.

When daring and perseverance are allied, one of the rare ingredients of leadership is in place.  


2) Energy and Equilibrium


The second secret ingredient of leadership is energy. This ingredient comes from equilibrium and a sense of equilibrium.

Energy, the strength that supports a leader, and that he gives off and infects other with, is the sine qua non for the perseverance that is essential for success. How to hold on faced with doubts and adversity without the mental and physical energy to bounce back from failure or to make progress when faced with obstacles?

This is not an inborn strength but rather comes from several factors that must be worked on: the solidity of the vision, how well mapped out the path to get there is, a consistency between the values espoused and those practiced, the ability to prioritize problems in order to deal with them efficiently etc.

Energy too comes from the togetherness and morale of the team the leader is in charge of. A leader infuses his team with as much energy as he can.

The moral authority of “the project” that he is undertaking is another vital source. In addition, each little victory on the road to the ultimate goal revitalizes the energy of a leader and, paradoxically each lesson learnt from failure can also bring renewed vigor as: “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”

On a personal level, a leader must develop this energy by seeking mental and physical balance.

At a physical level it mustn’t be forgotten that man is an animal whose brain must be adequately nourished, nutritionally speaking and by the special chemistry that physical exercise provides. A sound mind in a sound body. Steve Jobs elevated nutrition to an art form, while Nicolas Sarkozy, whose boundless energy impressed even his detractors, swore by jogging.

Mentally, equilibrium is a notion as important as it is neglected. All great leaders draw strength from their life, their past, their roots, to know where they are going and to embark on that journey with an adventurer’s enthusiasm.   

Equilibrium comes from the way in which each leader understands his past, but also how he manages his present, day-to-day life. To let yourself get distracted or annoyed by a relationship in the doldrums, a disorderly home life is not the mark of a great leader. Some young leaders find that they reach a dead end in their family life, as was the case with Steve Jobs, and the disruption that this causes is obvious. Family and the home are sanctuaries that can provide you with so much rest, perspective, energy and creativity that they are in reality part of the leadership equation.

Finally we must emphasize that a leader has a sense of balance. In his outlook, his industry and enterprise, he assesses, understands and takes into account this “tacit knowledge.” These “equilibria” are the political, economic, human or social. He understands and respects them and so can adjust the balance when it is uneven. This sense of a “tug of war” in action is closely tied to the ability to think systematically.

Finding the right equilibrium also involves having a sense of fairness, in your inter-personal and inter-firm relationships. The leader is a builder of relationships, and in doing so establishes and guarantees a sense of balance that is key as much as to maintain (high productivity levels, bringing added value and effort etc.) as to give (fair pay and deserved status etc.).

Maintaining balance is not the same thing as maintaining the status quo however. The strength of a leader is to approach the issue of equilibrium in a dynamic fashion. He knows how to respect the established order, as well as put in place a new one. But when he shakes up the established order, the leader knows how to proceed in a just manner so that everything, and everyone ends up in the right place, or a better one.


3) Systematic thoughts, systematic actions


The ability to think systematically and act systematically is rare and probably the biggest secret ingredient of leadership.

 It’s important again here to examine the concept of being systematic and just why this quality is so rare.

To make an impact in this world, you need to understand its complexity, that’s the first step towards eventual mastery. Then you must put yourself in a position to act on the different factors it’s composed, then, finally, act.

The experts define the system as “a complex and dynamic group functioning as a single unified structure.” A company is a system, an industry a much bigger system encompassing clients, competitors and regulators etc. The world is a still bigger system. To succeed, a leader needs to have the capacity to understand not only the ins and outs of his business but also the significant changes taking place in the political, economic and social spheres. And to act accordingly. Mastering something this complex is an immense challenge. Each system is a highly elaborate piece of a greater, even more complicated whole.

So to have a viable system we need time, fierce intelligence and a great deal of experience to be able to fit all the pieces together in such a way as to have an effective structure where each part is in harmony with the others and with the structure as a whole.

The sad reason for the scarcity of leaders is this: In the West we have forgotten how to think systematically! Favoring deductive reasoning instead, western thinking and education has, for the longest time, dominated the world by making specialists of its elites: some are trained to be excellent lawyers and that alone. Others formidable managers in finance or marketing, yet more learn the ways of the politician at Science Po or how to be a top civil servant at ENA.

But where are all the leaders who received specific training to master the many and various intermingling issues, systems and situations of the modern world? Academically speaking at least, there are none. 

The Orient, better-versed at systematic thinking and considering  the importance of balance and harmony, stay one step ahead when it comes to synthesis.

And there is another problem linked to the culture of task specialization so prevalent in the West, and it is that those with the time to think (professors and analysts) are cut off from the ‘doing’ (and its valuable lessons) while those involved in the ‘doing,’ i.e. managers and directors, never have the time to engage in deep reflection, to contemplate existing systems, their inner workings and subtle interactions, which combine, cancel each other out or impact one another. Still, they must take decisions, act, manage.

The key is to not lose the whole by focusing too much on any one part. Marketing is but a part of the whole and must operate in harmony with other sub-systems such as finance, human resources and talent management and so on.

The biographies of the great leaders often underline this paradox: each subject is able to have a global vision – to see the big picture, as the saying goes – and at the same time understand each detail of his business. The paradox is obvious: systematic thought relays the micro-elements to the entire system, the whole.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the West’s most brilliant and prolific historic figures – whose work straddled the worlds of art and science – was a systematic thinker.     

A final word on this rare ingredient: each leader needs to have joined up thinking when it comes assessing the specifics of each sub system, the sub systems themselves and the system as a whole, but above all to share the knowledge they’ve acquired to facilitate the success of their adventure. Alone, he can never stay on top of the myriad complexities, situations and systems in motion – linear or otherwise – and cannot hope to predict the future course of history, much less write it.


4) Introspection and the courage to keep improving yourself


Becoming a leader is an arduous apprenticeship that no book can completely teach. To have what it takes to be a leader of men, the perseverance to move mountains, the humility to listen to the little guy, among other precious talents; you must traverse an almost impossible path.

The path is a personal one, with no signposts and so requires introspection to follow. It is full of booby-traps, some unwittingly laid by yourself, and the blind alleys that pride sends you down.

Life’s path is intimate and in the mind. It cannot be seen by anyone else but yourself, nor accessed, despite the fact that occasional mentors intervene at different stages of our lives. The route is long and treacherous and complacency can bring even the most determined of voyagers to a premature end.

Introspection is the courage to keep improving ourselves. It demands that two titanic tasks be accomplished.

The first is to dare to face our demons, faults and failures. This is a painful and unwelcome step. Often, only failure makes us undertake this journey of introspection. 

The other is to dare to transcend the qualities we suppose to be perfect. The world is teeming with people who believe they are at the top of their game and are unwilling to go on learning. Yet we must never stop perfecting our qualities, and continue to learn, grow, enrich ourselves even when – especially when – success invites us to rest on our laurels.


5) An ability to manage paradoxes


In the popular imagination, great leaders possess a wide array of qualities and values. To such a degree that the business of leadership begins to look like the art of managing a series of paradoxes.

How do the great entrepreneurs and statesmen reconcile their speech, strong personality and ability to listen? How do they become models of self-confidence who, at the same time are among those who doubt the most? How are they able to centralize power and vision, whilst at the same time decentralize action and organization?

Throughout these four paradoxes – and there are more than just the four – one of the sources of leadership can be seen in action. Great leaders manage such dilemmas with a practiced hand, guided by a sharp sense of pragmatism, a magnificent feel for situations and an uncommon work ethic.

Paradox 1: Reconciling self-confidence with humility and a capacity to doubt

Two grand characteristics of great leaders: they have the supreme confidence of their followers, and at the same time a capacity to be humble and to entertain doubt. These two qualities don’t seem to sit well together, even if the concept of the “humble leader” (sometimes referred to as “Level 5 Leadership”) has been gaining ground.

The paradox rests on the impression that those who exude self-confidence don’t doubt themselves. However, this paradox is only an appearance.

For one thing, there is a temporal sequence, certain and invisible, that must be recalled. He who doubts, hesitates, consults, searches his heart can, because of prior reflection, affirm his convictions, decide on his strategy, learn self-understanding. First comes doubt, then comes self-confidence.

For another, self-confidence can be the base of action that relies on methodical doubt to find the best way forward, the most redoubtable of strategies. The leader knows who he is and where he is going, but he understands the complexity of the voyage and advances with caution to conserve his energy.

Furthermore, the leader who knows his goals can work with his inner-circle to hit upon the best course of action to reach them.

Self-confidence does not mean shutting others out, ignoring doubt or assuming victory. Likewise, doubt is not an absolute vacuum, an inability to act. It’s avoiding unwinnable wars. It’s an ability to analyse that allows a leader to know upon which fundamentals he may count, and in which areas he must proceed with caution, not confusing presumption with certitude.   

Paradox 2: Centralized vision and decentralized action      

The second paradox is that great leaders are at once centralizers and decentralizers. As directors they centralize the vision and, to achieve their goals, centralize lots of information, strategic as well as financial.

But to have a major and widespread effect, they also have the ability to decentralize action and organization.

Once a vision has been established, putting in place an organization becomes crucial: it has to reflect the vision, but also take into account specifics of location, staff profile, and, even, the client. This taking into account of circumstances on the ground guides a decentralization that is systematic, so that the action be directed as close to the ground as possible, notably when it pertains to marketing and sales. The leader gives access to information, makes empowerment possible, shares the power to act and to initiate action even. A leader is not just someone who brings together a network of leaders who share the same mission, share the same platform, in order to succeed. He also shares his leadership and doesn’t hoard it. He truly delegates, content to structure and clarify the principal objectives and the framework of intervention of the network of leaders that he directs.

Paradox 3: The man of words vs the man who listens

An ambassador of his cause or his company, a leader is, of course, a man of words. He knows how to put into simple and enthusiastic words the complexity of things. He is a man of his word, who articulates, who builds with words, the mission, the strategy, the many promises that his company must keep going forward. But with all this, where is the time for listening?

How to have the time to sound out, discuss, collect testimonials and recommendations when your role tends to confine you making decisions and announcements?

This is where the strength of the great leaders lie. Their words are the fruit of listening.  They are the synthesis of what staff want but can also be what clients and shareholders demand and hope for. Triangular listening (clients, shareholders, staff) calls for a capacity to synthesize that is out of the ordinary, which goes by another name: the art of aligning interests. This art requires an ability to see the big picture as well as an attention to detail in which the alignment of often contradictory interests is made possible and mutually beneficial.

Furthermore, the man-ambassador who is a leader is only respected by the many and varied people who listen to him (media, staff, shareholders, and regulators etc.) because his viewpoint is formed after patient, methodical and active listening. The more the ability to listen, which requires humility and respect for the other, is cultivated, the more his synthesis will be founded on legitimacy.   

Paradox 4: Being in the vision and in the execution

To succeed in forming a vision requires a creative soul. Directing a vast team or business requires discipline in the execution. How, then, to be a visionary on the one hand, whilst at the same time the guarantor of the discipline and thoroughness necessary to carry out an ambitious project? Put another way, how to be a man of the future (visionary, creative) while still being a man of the present (decisive, disciplined)?

Visionaries disconnected from the action never make great leaders. Rigorous managers who lack vision are not recognized as leaders. To inherit and to merit the title of a leader who balances the art of understanding the present, pragmatically, and to glimpse the future is essential. But how to achieve this?

The first ingredient is to be found in time management. To master the present and the short term, just like the future and the long term, a leader needs to know how to take a step back and examine the potential outcomes of each action.

To shut the world out in order to meditate, to compose your thoughts and to decide on your next course of action is not a waste of time for him, but is a necessary prerequisite that provides sanctuary. But far from locking yourself away in an ivory tower for days on end, the practice rather allows you to spring back into action rapidly, once your mind is clear and the way forward has emerged. Fundamentally, the leader has two fixed points of reference: the starting line and the finishing line, and he builds the roads, bridges and trails to connect one with the other. And you can never have too much creativity, since that is what provides the vision to plot the best route.

When a company reaches a certain size the creation of a dual role CEO/COO or president/GM sometimes occurs with “a major long-term vision/focus” for the first and “short term tactical planning and co-ordination for the second.” But for a lot of leaders and directors it’s necessary to excel at both tasks, even if the second can more easily be delegated to members of your team.

The second is having the mental discipline not to fixate on one or the other of these horizons.

A strong emotional distance is required to detach yourself from day-to-day concerns and the needs of the present. In addition, the future is not a simple horizon: planning for three, ten or a hundred years is not the same thing at all. What remains unresolved in the ten year plan and in daily management will be a major impasse in the medium term plan. You must be one who explores the future and one who acts on the current reality.