Everything You Know About Leadership Is Wrong

The best leaders serve, take blame, and check their ego. Wait, what?


The great Vince Lombardi once stated that leaders weren’t born, but made. He then suggested that “hard work” is what made them, but that only tells part of the story. Leadership has evolved over the years, and it looks quite different depending on the industry you’re in. Though, when it comes to leading colleagues or a group to complete a task, there’s as much to be said about what a leader doesn’t do as what he or she does.

General Stanley McChrystal is the former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, as well as the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He has since erected his own consultancy, CrossLead, based on what he learned in leading soldiers through situations where failure could have very dire consequences. “The wisest decisions are made by those closest to the problem — regardless of their seniority,” he told Firstround, painting an unconventional stroke on the issue of leadership. In his view, the only way to move as fast as the enemy — or, in more relatable terms, the competition — is to “empower people on the front lines to make decisions as quickly as they can learn new information.”

In my years of co-managing a team of dozens distributed across all manner of time zones, I had similar realizations. While orchestrating a global group of journalists, photographers, and news hounds is no match for managing a team getting set for battle, there are commonalties that enable those put in leadership roles to achieve ever more.

1Ditch the ego. The line between tyrant and leader is drawn with three little letters. The most effective leaders usually don’t brand themselves as such, and if you ask many well-liked executives if they consider themselves a leader, you’ll find that many shy away from the term. Part of that has to do with the psychology of the word. To recognize oneself as a leader is to admit that one has power over others, which can be a destructive thought if not harnessed properly. John Saddington, a serial app developer and former Human Capital Officer at The Iron Yard, put it as such: “The way that I have always seen it is this: If you give yourself the title of ‘leader’ then you, to a certain degree, disqualify yourself from being one. [It is] not something you can (or have the right to) give yourself, but something that you ultimately receive from the people that you lead.”

2Exist to serve. The cliché is that one should lead by example, but that’s selling the premise a bit short. Instead, you should practice servant leadership. If a leader seeks first to serve, it’s amazing what else falls into place. Colleagues and supporters of leaders are most apt to become loyal and dedicated if they see their leader being loyal and dedicated. One of the most underrated qualities of a leader is the ability to get in the trenches and work alongside those that one supposedly presides over. This is commonly referred to as a flat organization, where titles hold little meaning and the CEO is just as likely to help out an intern as the CFO or COO.

3Empower with impunity. If a team is forced to wait their turn to seek permission or clarity from a leader, the power of said team is dramatically weakened. Conversely, teams that are trained well from the start and empowered to make judgement calls without approval from on high are able to be more nimble. What sounds risky is in fact the key to unleashing the true potential of a team. It’s a leader’s job to train new hires how to process challenges and make decisions, not to question everything they put forth. Moreover, emboldening your staff enables new leaders to emerge, and those who do rise up won’t soon forget the latitude you gave them to get there.

4Distribute credit, absorb blame. This is most frequently seen in sports, but it’s true for all walks of management. A leader’s true value is measured by the accomplishments of his or her staff. Being quick to share credit and show gratitude creates an environment where colleagues are increasingly likely to go the extra mile. Similarly, the best leaders are quick to absorb the blame for things that go wrong, even if the issue was triggered by someone else. Building up character is a responsibility that sits squarely on a leader, and there’s no quicker way to do that than by generously sharing credit and acting as a shield when things go sideways.

5Lead in life, then in work. A study out of the University of Florida has put data behind what was long assumed: great leadership starts at home, and grows from within. Leadership in the workplace cannot be mastered in a vacuum. The study ties “diet, exercise and emotional intelligence together,” defining emotional intelligence as “knowing one’s true self and using awareness to best respond and relate to others,” which they say is “vital for a trusted and effective leader.” Indeed, having the determination to make diet, exercise and honest-to-goodness vacations a priority enhances one’s ability to see issues at work from a macro level. Having a healthy mind, body and soul enables leaders to think more clearly, act less impulsively and show genuine care for the well-being of those working around them.

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