Leadership visualized

I thought it would be helpful to include an illustration of what I mean by the two reasons we follow a leader.


As I tried to reduce leadership to its most basic elements, I was left with two principles: willingness to be responsible and knowing where to go. The relationship between the two feels straightforward, but it’s a little more complex than it immediately appears.

First off, to describe those who aren’t leaders. A person who doesn’t know where we’re going and isn’t interested in shouldering any responsibility for getting us there is simply incapable of being a leader.

Someone who knows where to go but isn’t interested in the responsibility is different. This person is capable of leading but refuses to do so. Those who distinguish between a “boss” and a “leader” are describing this sort of person.

The person who doesn’t know where to go but is willing to take the responsibility is really incapable in one sense. They’re incapable because at the beginning they don’t have the knowledge necessary to attain the objective. But their willingness enables them to figure out how to get to the destination and (maybe) gives them the determination to keep trying. This person isn’t guaranteed to get us to the goal but, at least for a while, they’ll help us move along the path.

The best leader is the one who knows how to achieve the goal and is willing to take responsibility for getting us there. Because they know how to get to the goal, they can direct us with confidence and a minimum of trouble. Because they’re willing to be responsible they understand that they’ve accomplished very little if they reach the destination alone. They understand that their role isn’t just to reach the goal, it’s to expand (and probably extend) the capacity of each follower so that we can reach the goal. No guarantees of success here either, but this is the closest we can get.

P.S – I know, there are other important dimensions to leadership. But simplifying to two classes is a helpful way to start thinking about it.


Wanting to lead

Wanting to lead and leadership are not the same thing.

We follow leaders for two reasons: either they know how to get where we’re trying to go, or else they don’t know but they’re willing to shoulder the responsibility for getting us there anyway. It’s important to understand which one we’re dealing with, because the skills and attitudes required to lead and to follow in the one case are very different from the ones required in the other.

If you want to lead, it’s best to figure out which one you are, then be very clear about it with those who are following.

A service to be given

It’s tempting, if you’re in a position of authority, to make as many decisions as you can, to be involved in every detail of every transaction, and to avail yourself of every opportunity that your position affords. After all, we generally rise to our positions of authority because of our success in doing those very things. But authority isn’t leadership.
If leadership really is a service to be given (and I’m convinced that it is), then our responsibility is to introduce those we lead into every decision, transaction, and opportunity that we can, then to help them succeed.


To reliably build a successful business, you need to add value. To build a company like Ford or Apple, you have to deliver market-changing value at an individual scale. Henry Ford didn’t just succeed because he had a great business plan or the right attitude about work (although they undoubtedly helped), he succeeded because he revolutionized transportation 15 million times. Apple isn’t just succeeding because of its slick design, it’s succeeding because since the introduction of the iPod (really since the Apple II, with a bit of a detour there in the middle), it has revolutionized the experience of personal computing a billion times.

What value are you adding? And for which people?

On trust and vulnerability

A syllogism and a related thought:

The quality of a relationship is a reflection of the trust between two people.

Vulnerability is defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Our willingness to be vulnerable, then, is a measure of our belief that our action will increase the trust in a relationship.

In his essay The Crisis, Thomas Paine shared an anecdote about a tavern-keeper who, standing at the door of his tavern with his child in his arms and faced with the prospect of war with England, declared “Well, give me peace in my day.”

Tom’s response was that a generous parent should have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

There’s no question that peace is preferable to trouble. Thankfully, we’re not especially likely to face the reality of war or its personal effect on our children. But if we’re to truly be leaders, vulnerability means that we have take the position of the generous parent in the challenges we do face. It means that we have to be the ones who will stand up and say “I can take this if it means someone else won’t have to.”

I wish it were easier. But then, if it were, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.