It is easy to spot leaders: They are the people others follow.
It’s harder to answer the question whether leaders are born that way or are created by their environment.
For what it is worth, I believe good leaders are born and great leaders are the ones who go on to study and emulate the habits of the best commanders, chiefs, presidents and clergy.
I consider myself a good leader, so I always try to understand what great leaders have in common, and after years of study, I think I’ve found it: Setting context.
The contextual lens they create is often focused on a desired outcome. They help the team envision the ultimate goal and then challenge their brightest teammates to build strategies to get there regardless of current adversities.
For example, Christopher Columbus was able to inspire investors and crewmates with his vision of a shortcut to India and bountiful new discoveries. This lens helped his investors endure failed attempts and his crews endure stormy seas.
Listen closely and you’ll see leaders create context on the spot. I was at a CEO Conference a couple of years ago. One CEO got up to address the room and he mentioned how nervous he was to speak in front of the group. Without hesitation, another leader shouted out, “That’s what courage feels like!” In an instant, that second leader was able to reframe nervousness into a positive experience for everyone in the room.
Teachers lead this way. Last year, my oldest son’s literary teacher began coaching students to think of their brain as a muscle and that the harder they worked—the more it “hurt”—the more it was growing. Almost immediately my son started seeing homework as a workout to grow his brain. He almost seemed to enjoy the educational version of “No pain, No gain.” It turns out that this brilliant piece of contextual leadership is backed by studies (PDF download) that support the strategy.
Context will get you through the toughest times.
Many years ago, we were very clear on our goal to become the nation’s leading innovation agency. We were also very clear about the types of services, team and results that were necessary to make the claim. The vision of where we were going and what stood in our way made it possible for us to admit our shortcomings—there were plenty to go around: from learning how to quantify insights to figuring out what was driving innovation in financial services and health care.
We spent a year focusing specifically on these shortcomings. Our company theme was literally “make the vapor go away,” which was a nod to the promises we wanted to make but could not because of gaps in our service offering. We became so focused on where we were going that not only did we overcome our problems, we turned the solution into competitive advantages. For example, we created an app to help fill a gap we found in the way companies thought about and managed their innovation portfolios. (Click here to view in iTunes.)
Setting the proper context allowed us to reorganize our company, acquire other companies and achieve our goals.
So the next time you see confusion, fear, infighting or passive-aggressive behavior on your team, ask yourself if you’ve given your team the context or lens to properly view your current challenges.
Remember, if you don’t set the context, someone else is setting it for you.
So what do you think? Are leaders born or does good parenting, mentoring and experience create the person you want to follow? What are your top three attributes of a great leadership? Please let me know by clicking the comment button now. Here’s some context: I want to inspire and empower the curiosity of more leaders.