Where Does Leadership Come From?

Last Updated Oct 11, 2011 3:02 PM EDT

Where Does Leadership Really Come FromIf I see one more mind-numbingly trite platitude masquerading as leadership advice, I'm going to puke.

"Give your energy to things that give you energy."

"Learn enough to begin and then learn as you go."

"How can we create our preferred future?"

Who are these people that write this kind of useless fluff? Probably former TV evangelists. I'd be willing to bet that nobody who sits around spewing this kind of garbage all day long has one day of real management or leadership experience.

And I'd also bet that not a single one of the tens of thousands of people that follow this sort of nonsense are real managers or leaders in the real world. They're probably all leadership frauds - I mean experts - following each other on Twitter like dogs chasing their tails.

Seriously, there must be thousands of leadership sites, blogs, and microbloggers. Everybody's a so-called expert, guru, mentor, speaker, executive coach, or inspirational genius that's never actually managed a soul and couldn't lead ants to food in a vegetable garden.

The blogosphere and social media have conspired to unleash a torrent of leadership con artists. The reason, I suspect, is twofold:

1. The Internet provides a platform for anyone to appear credible.

2. Leadership rhetoric is so easy to fake, it's an easy target.

In theory, expounding on the topic of leadership must seem like falling off a log. It's not like it's a science or anything. And there are tons of books, historical lessons, anecdotes, and platitudes to riff on, not to mention real leaders to quote.

And now, anyone with a LinkedIn profile, a blog, and a Twitter account is a "CEO of one" who coaches, mentors, speaks, blogs, trains, whatever. Presto! Instant leadership guru.

In practice, real leaders - real life executives in real companies who build organizations, product lines, and shareholder value - are few and far between. And they didn't become successful by following people who spew nonsense on Twitter. Here are my thoughts on where leadership really does and doesn't come from:


Where Leadership Doesn't Come From

Running a small business, noble as that is. I run a little management consulting firm and write a blog, neither of which makes me a leadership expert. The only reason you're reading this - the only reason I'm writing it - is because I had a career before all that. And get this: I don't think I'm an expert at anything.

A laundry lists of attributes. There are loads of smart, experienced, driven people with MBAs and great looking resumes who are great communicators and fantastic speakers. Unfortunately, they're also terrible managers and worse leaders.

Platitudes and parables. Sure, real leaders will occasionally quote somebody to make a point, but when content is all platitudes or parables, that's just worthless. The quotes above, for example, come from a so-called leadership expert who tweets this sort of fluff all day long.

Fanatics with a narrow world-view. The CEO of an apparently well-regarded leadership site once emailed this to me: The subject was: "You are an idiot." The pithy message included "are you really that stupid?" and "you are a moron." Why did she do that, out of the blue? Just her way of expressing disagreement with one of my posts. Must be some new kind of leadership speak.

    Where Leadership Does Come From

    Dealing with adversity, competition, and crisis. It comes from facing your fear, staring down the barrel of defeat, and surviving. An untested leader is no leader. An untested leader is a novice who has nothing to teach anyone.

    Making decisions that affect lots of people's lives and livelihoods and sometimes making the wrong one. It comes from admitting to yourself, and everyone else, that you failed - and, in all likelihood, will fail again - but each time you'll learn from it and hopefully not make the same mistake twice. Failure breeds humility and confidence. Failure builds leaders.

    A fire in your belly that makes it impossible to forsake your dream or vision, especially when everyone says you're crazy or it can't be done. It comes from a willingness to work 24x7 to understand and solve some big, hairy problem for no other reason than that it's there and, if you succeed, you'll bring something unique and useful to the world.

    Within. While leadership comes from experience - from immersion in the real business world - it also comes from within. It comes from self-knowledge, self-reflection, and self-confidence. It comes from the deep-seated belief that you've got something to prove, that you're special or destined for great things, a belief that, for whatever reason, is often self-fulfilling.

    Look, I know we live in a society that spends billions on male-enhancement products, takes medical advice from Suzanne Somers, and watches Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. But just because someone's a blogger who tweets a lot and quotes leaders, doesn't make him a leadership expert.

    Not all that glitters on Twitter is gold. How's that for a platitude?


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