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When we talk about leadership, what do we mean?

December 14, 2016

We’re thrilled to feature a guest blog post from Fast Company co-founder and former Harvard Business Review Managing Editor, Alan Webber. Alan was honored recently at our 20th Global Institute for Leadership Development as the recipient of the Warren Bennis Award for Excellence in Leadership. Here, he shares some words of wisdom about the evolution of leadership.

It’s hard to think of a more important, more fundamental, more essential job than that of a leader. Virtually anything is possible with leadership. People rally to a great cause. They come together as a team. They overcome obstacles and create new possibilities. They do things individually and collectively they never knew they were capable of.

And without leadership, it’s just the opposite. An organization with great talent, great assets, great potential simply sits there, stuck in neutral.

We’ve all seen it. I’ve seen it from more than 40 years of working in government, in academia, in big companies and entrepreneurial startups, in sports teams and in campaigns. In the end the catalytic element is always leadership.

But when we talk about leadership, what do we mean?

What do we look for in others and aspire to ourselves?

I’ve seen the way we define leaders change and morph in ways that are sometimes serious, sometimes comical and sometimes tragic. But these days, with so much changing so fast, with such great uncertainty and such high stakes, leadership is more than a fashion statement that changes with the season. Today we need to take our thinking about leadership both higher and deeper; we need to be both simpler and tougher about the one thing that makes the most difference.

Let’s take a quick look back over the last 40 years or so.

The Tough Guy
Back in the early 1980s, when I went to work at the Harvard Business Review, leadership was emerging as a topic worthy of academic study and corporate attention. With the job of the CEO becoming larger and more powerful (and better compensated), professors and journalists started looking for the qualities that defined a leader and the people who exemplified those qualities.

In short order a definition emerged, at least in the popular business press: A leader was “tough.” Every year Fortune magazine would publish a cover story on the “10 toughest bosses in America.” CEOs were men—exclusively—who could “kick ass and take names.” Firing people, cleaning house, getting rid of dead wood was the work of leaders. Leaders had nicknames like “Chainsaw.” You knew them when you saw them: They were the men on the covers of magazines who had chiseled jaws, piercing eyes and were always facing right (facing right was a sign of toughness).

Command + Control = Obsolete
When Bill Taylor and I started Fast Company in the early 1990s we thought that definition made no sense. It simply didn’t fit the new world of work: In the new economy work was personal, knowledge was power and leadership had to be dispersed throughout the company.

We developed our own definition and explored it in detail. We said that the team with the most leaders at all levels would win. Leadership couldn’t be about one person at the top of a pyramid—especially when the pyramid itself was flattening.

We said that leadership was about asking the right questions more than knowing all of the answers. It was about setting high goals rather than giving orders. It was about recruiting, developing, promoting and keeping talent. It was about protecting people from unwarranted outside criticism while internally holding them accountable to each other, to the team and to the organization’s real purpose.

It’s Not a Popularity Contest
Today, however, that definition has given way to a new one, a flashier one. Today, in the era of instant communication and endless self-promotion, leadership appears to be the same as celebrity status. Money plus fame equals leadership. If you’re rich—really rich—if you have millions of followers on social media, if you’re a rap star or a reality TV personality, then you must be a leader. You must know something important—even if that something is only how to be rich and famous.

To my way of thinking, that definition is not only wrong—it’s dangerous. It trivializes what we all know is the most critical component of any organization. It makes leadership an entertainment factor instead of a fundamental quality of life—of everyone’s life.

What do you stand for?
The more I’ve thought about leadership over the last 40 years, the more I’ve tried to make my definition simple and hard. I’ve tried to elevate it and reduce it.

Here’s what I’ve come down to: three simple questions to test yourself as a leader, your organization, and others around you.

What do you stand for? Leadership is nothing if not a test of character and values. So what do you absolutely stand for? At your core, who are you? All leadership starts with self-assessment. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a test of self-knowledge.

What won’t you stand for? In other words, where do you draw the line? What are you willing to fight against, to go to war against, to speak out against? What are you willing to be fired for rather than put up with?

Who do you stand with? Out here in New Mexico, where I live, the old West is alive and well. We have a saying: “Show me who you ride with and I’ll tell you who you are.” That goes for leaders. Show me who a leader has around them, show me where a leader goes to be with their people, show me who a leader stands with, I’ll tell you who they are.

The way we think about leaders and leadership keeps changing. But for me, these three questions run as deep and as hard as I can get. Try them yourself. See if they stand up for you. Because today, more than ever, we need real leaders.

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