The Secret of Leadership: Who the Hell Knows?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Like everyone, we give it a lot of thought. We interviewed three ‘leadership development’ firms last year. Each one asked ‘How many leaders are you trying to develop? We said: ‘One thousand.’ They said ‘Seriously, you need to identify your top leadership candidates, invest heavily in them, and they will provide great leadership to everyone else.’ We said ‘We have one thousand employees, we want every one of them to maximize their leadership potential. Do you have a program for that?’ Silence.

I’m thinking that the really great leaders don’t actually lead at all. They surround themselves with leaders, and develop leaders, and then get the hell out of their way. (Then those people do exactly the same thing.) That’s the ideal. But, of course, when a project is going south fast, or being been hi-jacked by the wrong people, or just going nowhere at all - then sitting in the corner, delegating, zen like, is moronic. People who won’t stand up strongly and argue for what they believe in drive me bananas. Where’s the balance? What’s the answer?

I know this fellow who teaches that if a person can acknowledge and move beyond the pain that life brings everyone, and then embrace in every moment the things that bring their life meaning and integrity, they have achieved outstanding personal leadership. I have a father who argues that leading means winning – you can’t lead if you lose; he is course right. The financial types instruct me that cash is king, that leadership is defined by working capital; they are, of course, right. Have more cash is like having a bigger gun. People tend to listen to you.

When I watch ‘leaders’, here’s what I notice. Some people lead quietly, some lead loudly, some lead with ideas, some lead with deeds, some lead with unbending integrity, some lead with inspiring words and others lead, surprisingly effectively, with ego and selfishness.

Who the hell knows? There is likely no answer, except maybe that provided by the Greek philosopher (apparently it’s unclear) who summed it up: Know Thyself.