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The most important message to leaders

(MoneyWatch) While at a conference in New York for my friend Joe Polish, an insane and insanely effective marketer, a well known author cornered me at a break with a challenge: If I could only write one thing, and that thing captured everything I believe, know, and intuit about leadership, what would it be?

For two days at Joe's conference (which was also co-organized by Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the X Prize), I sat through an array of speakers that I'm still shocked Joe, even with Peter's help, could assemble: Steve Forbes, Arianna Huffington, Tim Ferris, Ray Kurweil, and many others (I was beyond honored to also be asked to speak). Each had become, or was on their way to becoming, an iconic leader. Joe himself, who ran a carpet cleaning business in Phoenix just a few years ago, is well on his way to "icondom."

I could not stop thinking about the challenge from this well-known writer. Two sleepless nights and 1,000 unread emails later, here's my one shot at everything I know -- and think I know -- about leadership.

The problem with leadership is that we're making copycats. We study the road leaders take and all try to take the same road, creating creative gridlock. We need more road-makers, more people to follow the spirit of these leaders' steps, not their actual path. We need more history-bending figures that seem bigger than life, able to do things that the rest of us see as impossible. In two words, we need more "iconic leaders." The fact that so many icons were at the same conference is amazing. The fact that we have so few icons is tragic.

After looking at this subject for many years, I believe there are three factors that iconic leaders have.

The first is a sense of their own, center of the Earth, core values. Such values are discovered, not taught, not adopted. One of the reasons leaders tend to come from situations of adversity (poverty, early death of a parent, illness -- all factors positively correlated with a life that makes an impact) is that hardships reveal what matters to us -- what principles matter, and what don't. We all have hardships, but we don't all learn from them. It's not the hardship that counts, it's the reflection on it that does. People who are depressed have an edge in this type of learning, because they feel so down they cannot help but to reflect. The result of great reflection as iconic leaders all say, as Martin Luther did when challenged about why he was risking his life: "Here I stand, I can do no other." Gandhi's core values were dignity and respect. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s were justice and empathy. People's core values are as unique as a fingerprint, so my brief summary of a few iconic leaders' core values are the beginning of their journey, not the end.

The second element is that they know their great gift. Great gifts are much more specific than talents, strengths or abilities. They are a bit like a cat. They don't come running when you call, but if you create the right environment (like trying to finish a blog post for CBS MoneyWatch on a Sunday morning), they insist on sitting on your lap. Like a cat, you can put them in categories (long hair, short hair, tabby, ragdoll -- like mine), but truthfully, no two cats are the same. Each has its own pattern of behavior, it's own personality. If the cat analogy doesn't work for you, then think of children or best friends. The key is to get to know the nuance of your great gift -- when it works, when it fails and situations when it's extra powerful.

I referred to finding your great gift in last week's blog post, and at Joe's conference, dozens of people were asking me about mine. It's that I take input and ideas from many fields, companies, empirical research, and synthesize something original. It's part creative and part discovery. And unlike other synthesizers, I take it all the way down to specific steps people can take. It's why I write one book every three years, instead of three books every year. I can't release them until they're done, until my great gift says, "It's ready." My great gift is that I synthesize across fields, from history to spirituality to brain science to mythology, and produce what my tribe calls "actionable insights" -- a new way of seeing an old problem, with specific steps that people are inspired to take as a result of the new perspective.

Here's the test of whether you're on the trail of your great gift: You cannot not do it. When your mind is idle, your great gift kicks in. If you go days without using it, you feel like you've neglected a friend. So a great gift is subtle and creates an obsession at the same time. If you learn to use it, it stops stalking you, and reveals its nature more and more, every day. A relationship with your gift is not optional; the only choice is whether your great gift will feed your leadership story, or whether you feel haunted by an obsession.

The third element is a "cross-trained intuition." Leaders seem to know what the right thing to do is, even when others don't. How do they do this? In almost all the cases I've studied, they drew on insights from a field very different from the one in which they're leading. Martin Luther King, Jr. was mentored by Howard Thurman, a missionary who had met Gandhi, and studied the principles of non-violence. Many of King's insights came from combining an understanding of missionary work, with the remarkable life of the Indian leader. As a result of this influence, his intuition told him to not align himself with either political party in the United States, to remain outside the system of elected office, and to side with anyone down on his or her luck, regardless of their gender, age, race, or religion. His intuition has been trained by studied something very different from leading a social movement in the United States.

Gandhi's mother was a Jain, a devotee of a belief system that every living being has a soul. He also studied the classics, and was especially moved by the story of Harishchandra, a legendary figure who never told a lie and was a symbol of courage. Later in life, he became a nonviolent agitator -- values-driven, courageous, and building a movement that included Hindus and Muslims -- traditional enemies in India.

The leader with a cross-trained intuition that everyone is buzzing about is Steve Jobs. He did a deep dive in minimalism and aesthetics. The computer I'm typing on now -- a new MacBook Pro -- shows the effect of his intuition, and how he was famously able to reject focus group marketing, because people wouldn't know what they wanted until they saw it. Just as athletes improve their overall fitness by cross training, leaders who have done a deep dive in a field different from the one the lead come across as a bit odd at first, then clever, later visionary, and finally, as godlike in their insights.

If you put these factors together, you unleash a process called the "genius effect." It begins when you notice that the status quo offends you. You get mad, even outraged. The source of this anger, if you trace it back, is that the way things are violates your core values. You can't not do something about it -- your value compels you to action, even though the challenge seems like it would require a Manhattan Project to tackle. You do have a secret source of ability, which is your great gift. As you get to know it, you find that it's activated by your righteous indignation of the situation. It's not that your gift saves you, it's that you find yourself using a gift you didn't know you had. Along the way, if you're playing long term, you're guided by a deep instinct that has been cross-trained. If you follow the root of this instinct, you go to the field that you know, that others don't.

The genius effect gets its name from what people tend to say about iconic leaders: They are geniuses, not like me at all. That's true. There will never be another Steve Jobs, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or another Gandhi. Nor will there be another you. Your job is to find the way you can be an iconic leader and do that.

If you want a more specific challenge -- on par with what this famous writer did for me -- then find two people, and go through the process of finding these three elements of iconic leadership with them. It's your job to help them both find their values, great gift, and source of cross-trained intuition. You can read more about this in my iconic leadership blog. There are two people who will change your life, and you can be well on your way in 90 days. Your job is to find them.

Since this author asked me to write boldly, I will end with this thought: Why aren't there more iconic figures? Because there isn't more courage in the world. In fact, a lot of people study leadership for the wrong reason. They are in a situation and rather than rely on their cross-trained intuition, and great gift, and core values, they calm the restless feeling by reading about leadership. So armed with these general guidelines, the challenge is: Stop reading about it, and do it.

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