Leadership is a People Business – And Why We Should Remember This

After a leadership conference last month, some of my company’s biggest honchos asked me a question on leadership. The discussion that followed will become, I am sure, one of my favourite mentoring experiences.

“What makes a great leader?”

That was the initial question that I was asked. Unsurprisingly, the usual traits and characteristics I was trained to learn or unlock came out of my mouth. In about five seconds, I realised that this wasn’t the point of the seemingly-casual question.

If you had an extremely talented and brilliant guy on your team, do you think he’d make a great leader?“, the follow-up question went.

“I guess so. This person would know exactly what to do, and how to do it – especially during tough times,” I said. I was then asked if this was important; my answer, as you can imagine, was obviously yes. More than an hour of back-and-forth about leaders and leadership ensued, until the increasingly humid Thai air – and the nth glass of wine – signalled it was time to wrap up.

Talent and brilliance will only take you so far. Leadership, at the end of the day, isn’t about being the cleverest – that’s nice, but people need to love working with you.

A-ha! There it was; the life- and business lesson for the night.

We need to remember: we’re working with people

It has been nearly five years since my first promotion, and what a journey of evolution it has been. I will be the first to admit that my first attempt at leadership was not only terrible, it was downright tragic. Temper, hubris, and a selfish belief that I knew best cost me not only a few employees, but perhaps a couple of friendships as well. I tried too hard to be the most talented and most brilliant person in the team, instead of being a person that people would love to work with.

[READ: Never be the smartest person in the room.]

It has been nearly five years, and I have learned a lot since then – including the lesson that night in Bangkok. It has been in my head ever since (and will be in my head for some time).

Leaders, especially us younger ones, need to remember that those who look to us for leadership aren’t necessarily looking for answers or solutions all the time.

We need to remember that we’re dealing with human beings; creatures of emotions, feelings, dreams, wants, needs, and hopes.

We need to remember that our people are likely already talented and brilliant – and that our job is to help these talents and brilliance be revealed. That our job is to help them feel they are in an environment where they can be great, surrounded by good people, and that we have their backs when the proverbial crap hits the proverbial fan.

We need to remember that we leaders aren’t in the business of showing our one-downs how good we are – we are in the business of showing them how good they are.

That’s the leader I want and plan to be.

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