5 steps toward becoming a self-made leader
"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." - William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Remember those 20th Century debates we had about whether leaders were born or made?
Today, they seem sort of quaint--and frankly, out of touch. Back then, we agreed that leaders could be born or made. We were also familiar with the American ideal of the "self-made"--our society still loves stories about determined boot-strappers who came from nothing and accumulated a ton of dough, a lofty title, or both. But let's be clear. We were never really talking about something we need more than ever today: self-made leaders. Instead we were talking about self-made billionaires, self-made entrepreneurs, self-made CEOs, self-made NBA and NFL all-stars.
People still go from nothing to something out of nowhere, even overnight. Take Mark Zuckerberg, whose Wikipedia blurb identified him as the "world's 2nd youngest self-made (my italics) billionaire" in 2012. Zuckerberg is also a self-made innovator. As a college kid, he invented one of the most compelling capabilities of our new century, not to mention the world's most valuable social network. Still, writing about the 2010 movie The Social Network, The New York Times columnist David Brooks took "the character loosely based on Mark Zuckerberg" to task for being "without social and moral skills" largely because he was a product of a "culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct."
More recently, the real Zuckerberg is making headlines for what by all accounts appears to be an authentic journey toward becoming the type of leader our companies and world so desperately need. As some detractors called for Zuckerberg to step aside when Facebook's new stock faltered in 2012, he gave a public interview re-committing to running a "mission-based company"; asserted that his number one priority is Facebook's "great team", one inspired by "building something that's worthwhile." Early in 2013, the Employees' Choice Awards named Facebook the #1 Best Company to Work for in 2013. The latest headlines about Zuckerberg's leadership focus on his social convictions, as he forms an advocacy group addressing education, immigration, and other large-scale economic issues, and as he supports colleague Sheryl Sandberg's important "Lean in" initiative. It feels fair to say that we are witnessing a gifted person "self-making" his leadership with the kind of deliberateness Aristotle had in mind in the 4th Century BC when he said of social and moral excellence that such "excellence is not a single act, but a habit."
Zuckerberg undoubtedly recognizes that he is leading in a culture and world that is rapidly being reshaped. Because our global and business problems are so daunting and complex, we need all leaders-- from billionaires and all-stars to the latest YouTube sensation-- to similarly recognize and move beyond talk of social and moral conduct, to behave and even compete with it.
While power and authority remain key components of leadership, their very nature is changing dramatically due to the interconnected and interdependent nature of our world. Since we all have more influence and access to power than ever before, power can no longer be effectively wielded over people. That's because its source is shifting to moral authority rather that titular or inherited authority. We no longer automatically heed someone's directive or request because they are CEO or because their father and grandfather were rulers; we respond to leaders because we trust in their character, values and behaviors. As a result, effective 21st Century leaders wield their power through people and networks. They connect and collaborate instead of command and control.
Today, almost anyone can become a leader (a far cry from our previous centuries when power was lorded over people and depended on leverage). Today, so long as one exercises the right kind of authority through the right people and networks, one can transform into a global leader almost instantly, regardless of where they are in the world, thanks to our always-on network connectivity. Look at the vegetable vendor in Tunisia who sparked a revolution toward freedom throughout the Middle East. Or look at Martha Payne, the 9-year-old schoolgirl in Scotland who gained thousands of social media followers by blogging about school lunches and then leveraging her network to not only improve the food at her school but also to raise thousands of dollars to feed hungry children in Malawi.
Here's the good news: the type of leadership we need today can be developed by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Again, I'm talking about moral leaders - not about billionaires, inventors, C-level titles or league scoring champs. Self-made leaders develop a sustained ability to contribute their character and creativity in the service of getting other people to collaborate and unleash their own character and creativity in the service of vision inspired by shared purpose and values.
Self-made leaders recognize and respond to fundamental forces driving business and the world today; they seek to understand business' interconnected and morally interdependent nature, and then develop leadership muscles and habits that align with and leverage these forces. This leads to an important new question: How we can make, or re-make, ourselves into leaders whose power stems from moral authority rather than formal authority? The following can help leaders get started on an answer:
- Conduct a Moral Audit: Leaders and their organizations have long conducted financial audits and operational audits. Today, we need moral audits: What do you stand for? Why do you get out of bed every day? What does your company stand for? How do you derive meaning from your life and work? And to what extent do those answers reconcile and resonate with your and your employees' daily activities? When these audits expose gaps between our individual (and/or corporate) characters and our actual behavior or performance, we need to go to the social and moral gym. There, we need to develop and strengthen new leadership muscles, including empathy, humility, rigor about the truth, and consistency, as well as some traditional muscles, like courage and resiliency.
This "self-making" endeavor requires tough work, and it requires that we undertake an ongoing journey. After all, if we don't self-make or re-make our leadership approach, we won't succeed, and many of us will be out of a job, supplanted by others who are more attuned to our new sources of advantage.