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Please don’t become a leader. Unless you’re ready to do it properly

(First published in the TQM Journal, Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013)

Everyone wants to be a leader. Almost no-one understands what being a good one actually means. Leadership is aspirational because I think by being appointed ‘leader’ I will announce this to the world: I have arrived. I have the title on my business card. I have the corner office and an array of willing serfs. I have the power to direct my own life, and enticingly, the lives of others. And I (probably) have quite a bit of money, since I’m a ‘leader’ now.

Who wouldn’t want all that?

YOU shouldn’t want it, and neither should I. Not unless we both agree what this ‘leadership’ thing is going to entail.

First thing: the day you are appointed numero uno should not be the happiest of your life. It should be the most frightening. By taking on leadership, you have taken on responsibility for the lives and well-being of others. That should scare you long before it delights you. It should cause you to lose sleep and lose hair. Because it’s a big deal, leadership. Your life will never be the same again. Your followers will now watch your every move; they will expect you to solve every problem and understand every issue; they will look to you to make the big decisions that matter in their lives; hey, they’ll even copy your mannerisms and mimic your walk. Ready for that?

Second thing: leadership does not allow you to escape from the world; it throws you violently into the middle of it. There is a mistaken belief that leaders are spared the ordinary problems of life, like filling out their own forms or queueing up with ordinary mortals. Perhaps they are, but that will not feel like anything worthwhile to you. Why? Because as you simultaneously stop sweating the small stuff, you will be required to step into the big, ugly stuff. You will have to glide strategically to see the big picture as well as swoop down into mind-numbing detail. You will have to fathom subtle nuances and grand concepts. Because YOU are going to decide things now. If you decide well, your followers thrive. If your judgement is flawed, your followers suffer and your reputation plunges.

Third thing: everything will now be your fault. Whatever goes wrong in the lives of your followers, including things that they do to themselves, will be laid at your door. People offer great rewards to leaders, but they also make astonishing demands. Because they’ve made you their leader, they require you to fix their lives for them. So if the buses are late, or their relationships crack, or their children ignore them, or things don’t feel the same any more – it’s going to be your fault, for running their world badly.

If you’re still reading, perhaps you should think about leading. If nothing I have written on this page has deterred you, perhaps we can discuss this some more. Now that you’ve understood that leadership is a big deal, and it isn’t about you, let’s proceed.

As a leader, you’ll have to stop being a doer, or even a manager. In other words, you’ll have to stop fixating on the What, How, Where, Who and When of doing things, and you’ll have to spend much of your life thinking about WHY. WHY we’re doing what we’re doing; WHY we do it this way and not some other way; WHY it will matter to all of us; WHY it’s worth doing at all.

Leaders, as thinkers like Simon Sinek have pointed out eloquently, think hard about the WHY every day. They have to jerk themselves away from the details of getting things done, and spend more time thinking about the compelling reason for doing things in certain ways. Because once you become a leader you have look away from the nuts and bolts of getting things done; and force yourself to think about other ways of getting them done; and better ways of inspiring others to get those things done.

Leaders, you see, get things done through others. They create a powerful and compelling WHY which inspires people to do things better and faster. They extract unusual performance from others. The leader is not the best technician showing the others how to do it; he isn’t the commandant barking directions. The leader is more akin to the conductor making sure she has the best talent in her orchestra; or the coach urging the team forward from the sidelines to stay organized and score the goal.

You may now be saying: hold on a minute. If that’s leadership, how come I’ve seen so little of it? Most leaders I know are either obsessively micromanaging or annoyingly ethereal. Most are in it for themselves. Most get a great thrill from being the head honcho. Most score their leadership by ticking off their own achievements and advancement.

This is true. Good leadership is rare, and bad leadership is everywhere. If it’s the bad kind you’re after, go on: you’ll join a long pantheon of leaders who have only taken their people around in circles while thumping their own chests. Do it for the money, do it for the status, do it for the thrill of power. But recognize fully that greatness will pass you by.

If it’s the real deal you’re after, then prepare yourself for the most selfless of roles. Prepare to sacrifice yourself in order to create good for others. Take this duty, but take it reluctantly and with great humility, for you will now lose yourself and your personal goals in the service of the collective.

It is time our organizations and nations were run by proper leaders. Proper leaders understand that it isn’t about them. They understand that the value of their leadership can only be measured in terms of the results for their followers. They understand, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that leadership isn’t what you smoke up on the mountain; it’s what you build down in the valley.

Sunny Bindra is a writer, columnist, speaker, lecturer and business advisor in Nairobi, Kenya. He runs his own leadership programme, Fast Forward, aimed at generating wisdom in leadership.
See his website, www.sunwords.com, for more on leadership; and follow him on Twitter: @sunnysunwords

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear on www.sunwords.com. Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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