I’m often asked about ‘what it takes to be a leader’, and heaven knows there’s a gazillion “5 things to master to be a great leader” articles around, but I believe there’s one true lesson of leadership that changes everything.

It’s the answer to a very simple question – Why do you lead? And the answer can only be – For others.

The Lesson 

In the early 2000s, I had the pleasure of working with the great professor, Dr. Jack Denfeld Woods, at that stage, working from IMD, Lausanne. I was living in The Netherlands and we were partnering with IMD on a new program to develop our highest potential leaders. As he thoughtfully crafted and challenged the next generation of leadership development, badged correctly as some of the best in the world, Jack would say ‘You can teach all about the How, and the What, but not about their Why, and that’s what matters most’.

The irony was not lost on me, then or now, that the greatest lesson on leadership, is quite possibly the one thing you cannot learn.

What matters most to be a great leader is Why you lead.

So, how do we spot that in others or indeed in ourselves?

Well, I’ve thought about this way too much, and I think it has three foundations behind it.

  1. Understanding we’re all in this together
  2. Being open to other people
  3. Not thinking they ‘own’ the role

Understanding we’re are all in this together

Leaders, or the best ones, completely appreciate the deep interdependency they have to everyone around them. They have no arrogance about their role, and instead only see the work required – the network to nurture, the connections they must make, the person they can support, the voices they cannot hear and need to seek out, and the moments their impact can be made. It fuels their passion to lift others. It builds a passion and a purpose- – to make a difference to others so that everyone can lift.

I heard leadership described as a “fun job” once. Without being too judgey, I thought it was a flippant misunderstanding of the difference between a “job” and “leadership”.

Leadership is complex and complicated, and that’s why it’s so special when you see it done well.

Great leaders can see that we’re all linked and how we all impact each other, all the time. Without sounding geeky, they ‘see’ the human system and ‘get’ that they’re just one link in that chain.

How do you spot it? – A great leader is present for everyone around them. They get that we’re all (every one of us) in it together.

Being open to other people

Great leaders know that inclusion is not a model or a framework, but rather it’s a way of coming at the world. People will chat about openness and empathy, but many don’t really challenge themselves. Maybe we stare in the mirror and ask – Am I genuinely open to the people around me? Am I listening for their stories, open to their ideas, seeking their opinions and voices, watching for their responses and reactions – Am I ‘open’ to learning from lived experiences even if (or especially if) they’re totally different than my own. Try and repeat two stories you’ve heard, and listened to this week, that you weren’t expecting and weren’t ready for; that challenged your views on a topic.

How do you spot it? Look at a leader’s team, glance around their friends, look at who they mentor, who thrives on their watch, and you’ll know straight away whether you genuinely believe their openness is real. People will listen politely to your words around inclusion and openness, but they’ll only be inspired when your actions have drowned out your words.

You don’t own the role.

Leadership is not about you. In fact, there is no other role so dependent on others. You’re literally are not a leader unless someone is following you, or seeking out your guidance. As the saying goes, there is no “I” in leader. How people respond to your leadership is the measure of whether or not you’re a good leader.

Your impact is measured both at the moment, and long after you’ve left the stage. You can have the best intention, the best plans, and the best ideas, but your legacy will be measured by your impact on others. On an organisation. In an agenda.

How do you spot someone who understands that their leadership is not their’s to self-report? They’re silent on it. They talk about the work, the challenges and the opportunities, the customers, and the team, but not about their themselves. That’s for others to discuss.

And with these three foundations knitted together – you almost always find someone whose why of leadership is ‘for others’. To make a difference, to improve things for others, to have an impact on the lives of others. And that’s a lesson deep in your own heart, not from a teacher.