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The Leadership Lie


When it comes to leadership, you have been lied to.

Actually, we all have been.

Here’s the lie:

“Some people are just natural born leaders.”

This is a lie. It is one of many lies we have been told about leaders and leading.

The truth is that leaders are made, not born.

Leaders are forged through experience and trial. While others are reading books on “leadership”, leaders are learning to read a room, to interpret body language, to resolve conflict and to trust and empower people to succeed and fail.

Recently I was invited to give a presentation on Leading and Following to a group of people at the University of Colorado. I shared with them the difference between “Leadership” and “Leader”.

Leadership is a verb. It is a philosophy. We write and read books about leadership. It is also what we blame when something happens we don’t like or agree with. All too often I hear phrases like, “I blame leadership for that” or “leadership made that decision”.

As though there is some unknown faceless entity that makes choices and decisions we don’t agree with.

On the other hand, “leader” is a noun. It is a person. It is an individual. These people lead even when not in formal positions of leadership.

There is nothing worse than trying to follow a person in a position of leadership when they are not leading. It is like being forever trapped behind that one car in the fast lane that is driving under the speed limit. It is frustrating and discouraging.

“Leadership” is never self-aware, whereas the most remarkable leaders are the most remarkably self-aware. They know who they are, what they are good at doing, what they are lacking. They know what they bring to every agenda, every meeting, every project. They know how to surround themselves with others who excel in areas they do not.
I find that leaders rarely read books about “leadership”. They read books about leaders or books written by leaders.

At our best, we do leader development, not leadership development.

In her book Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a little known story about Abraham Lincoln and Leo Tolstoy.

In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief “living far away from civilized life in the mountains.” Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon.

When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock…His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.”

“I looked at them,” Tolstoy recalled, “and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that those rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.” He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s “home life and youth…his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.”

By every account of Lincoln’s life, he was not a born leader. Many people looked at him and saw nothing extraordinary.

And yet for many he is the epitome of a leader. A leader who succeed and failed. A leader who took risks and chances. A leader who most likely never read a book on leadership.

As we look at our present situation, our culture is in need of leaders. People who have spent a lifetime being molded and shaped by circumstances and experience. People who are self-aware and more importantly socially-aware. People who lead by the strength of their convictions and their commitment to people.

Trevor Bron

To meet Trevor, click here.