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Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way

Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way
Statue

Leadership seems to be on everyone’s minds one these days. Educators talk about “teaching leadership”, religious and charitable organizations host “leadership development” programs , businesses invest heavily in “leadership training”. But what is leadership, exactly? And how do we practice it?

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Leadership is about bringing out and mobilizing the best in the people around you. It’s about helping a group of people work
together towards a shared goal or set of goals. When leadership works, it creates leaders, not followers.

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It follows then that leadership is not a trait of individuals. Leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns describes leadership as a collective process, a characteristic of the relationship between individuals rather than a property of individuals themselves.

Leadership is often confused with power. The common idea is that leaders speak, and followers do. But while leaders
may also hold a certain kind of power, in some senses power is the opposite of leadership: power is what we resort to when leadership fails.

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Another misconception about leadership is that it flows from charisma. While history does offer us the example of
charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy, there is no necessary link between charisma and leadership — there are plenty of charming, likable fellows selling used cars in backwater towns, too. And there are plenty of examples of effective leaders who lack charisma: Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Richard Nixon, to name a few.

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So what is it? And what do we have to learn to practice leadership ourselves? Here’s a short list of ways that leaders exercise leadership, simple practices from which leadership emerges.

What Do Leaders Do?

  • Leaders listen. Listening is not waiting for your turn to speak. Listening is an active engagement with the person you are talking with. Leadership grows out of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues, their fears and triumphs, what motivates them and what turns them off. There’s a trick psychologists recommend, where you try to summarize what your conversation partner just told you and what you understood them to be saying, like this: “So the police officer gave you the ticket anyway, and you feel that was unfair?” This gives your partner a chance to correct you if you’re wrong or confirm that you more or less got what they were saying — plus it helps you to learn and not just respond.
  • Leaders empower those around them. Leadership is not about controlling everything. What separates leaders from the merely powerful is that leaders involve everyone around them and welcome their contributions, however small. Leaders help the people around them feel comfortable putting their ideas forward and acting on them. This is why actively listening is so important — it lets people know that what they say is valuable and important. If leadership is about making those around you into leaders, you have to let go and trust others to move your shared projects forward.
  • Leaders recognize others’ strengths. Empowering others is bound up with recognizing what they are good at and encouraging them to develop those strengths. Surely you’ve run across people who simply cannot take a compliment — they simply have no idea of their own value. Good leaders recognize the value of those around them anyway, and act accordingly.
  • Leaders are trustworthy. There’s a reason people get so upset when prominent figures are exposed as hypocrites: it calls into question everything they came to believe about themselves and their goals. People may not believe you when you compliment them the first time, but as you build a consistent track record of honest and fair dealing, they will come to believe. Likewise, when you always do what you say you will do, when you act in accordance with the values you espouse, you become an inspiration to those around you.
  • Leaders are confident. Good leaders are sure of themselves and their goals. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have been to the mountaintop. I have seen the Promised Land!” This kind of certainty is infectious — it conveys not just our wishes but our passions and makes them appear real and inevitable. It keeps us focused on our goals and not on the difficulty of attaining them.
  • Leaders make decisions. People generally do not like to make decisions. They much prefer routines, known processes with known outcomes, and there’s a great deal of value in reducing complicated situations to a set of routines — much of the GTD methodology, for example, is based on creating effective routines (reducing complex projects to simple tasks, or “cranking widgets” as Dave Allen likes to say). But leadership is, by definition, about change, often disruptive change, and change demands decision-making, often between bad options. Leadership lies, therefore, in the wiliness to step forward and make a decision, and in taking responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
  • Leaders recognize the value in other perspectives. Leaders recognize their own limitations and the power that other people’s knowledge and life experience have to expand and push us past our limits. Leadership means trying to see the world from the perspective of those around you, even those who are working against you.
  • Leaders commit to action. There are a lot of smart, thoughtful people in the world who know exactly what needs to be done to change the world we live in, yet their worlds never change. Leadership means taking the next step and actually doing it. Leaders convert future goals into immediate actions and either do them or inspire others to do them.
  • Leaders demand commitment from others. In any project, there are lots of “hangers-on”, people who are interested in the goals being worked toward but not really invested in the process of attaining them. Leadership lies in helping those people to become invested, generally by asking them to take responsibility for some action or set of actions. People who have made a commitment to doing something concrete are not only much more likely to do it but they come to view the overall project as their own — and to feel responsible for and to their colleagues.
  • Leaders share ownership. As I said, leadership is about making those around us into leaders; ultimately leaders get out of the way. The best person for the job of creating change may not be the best person for the job of maintaining the new order (consider what usually happens when military leaders install themselves as political leaders after overthrowing a corrupt regime). Good leadership lies in creating in others the sense that the goals they are working towards are their own — as are the rewards. By giving up control and sharing ownership of their goals and passions, good leaders help to insure that the changes they envision — whether it is a successful product launch or a radical social transformation — will endure beyond their own active participation.

I hate the idea of “followers”. True leadership is not about amassing followers, it is about building teams, it is about creating social structures that effect change, however small or great, in the world. Followers are for demagogues, people who want the thrill of being adored and of exercising power over others, people too selfish and too weak to share. If we look at the history of social change, these “leaders” have almost always become exactly what they’ve claimed to replace. Real leadership is about real change, not personnel shifting.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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