Why Some Leaders Become Legendary, And How You Can Too!

If I asked you to name some legendary leaders, who do you think of?  You might think of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, or the Dalai Lama, among others.  Each of these leaders became legendary because, like the metaphorical pebble thrown in the pond, their influence is felt far beyond their personal reach.

What is so special about these individuals?  Do legendary leaders have something in common—some special quality—that we mere mortals can acquire to dramatically improve our own leadership skills?

The Common Denominator of Legendary Leadership

Of the legendary leaders I suggested, one common denominator among them is that they all inspired millions of people to make changes and personal sacrifices for the greater good.  If you distill this observation down to its simplest form, we are left with the clearest, most accurate definition of leadership:

Leaders inspire positive action in others.

Based on this definition, who can be a leader?  Is the title of “leader” reserved for only the heads of companies?  Must one be an “executive” to be a leader? 

The beautiful truth of leadership is that anyone and everyone can be a leader, if they decide to.

The Litmus Test of Leadership

There is a big difference between someone who occupies a leadership position and a leader.  That’s why it bothers me to hear some senior management teams referring to themselves as a senior leadership team.  At best, doing so implies that only executives can be leaders.  At worst, it smacks of hubris, like Napoleon crowning himself emperor.

How can one know if they are truly a leader, as opposed to someone who simply occupies a leadership position?  Let’s take a closer look at the key elements of leadership for the answer.

  • Inspire – Leaders connect with people on an emotional level to give them confidence and courage to make a change—often a personal sacrifice—for a greater good.
  • Positive – Followers are motivated to change and sacrifice out of a desire to build a better future and become a better person, not out of fear, revenge, or greed.  The benefits of their sacrifice will be enjoyed by the many, not the few.
  • Action – Action is the evidence of motivation. Sustained action is the evidence of commitment. If nothing is happening, then people aren’t motivated. If action isn’t being sustained, then there’s a problem with the leadership.

These three elements of leadership combine to produce a follower.  Therefore, the litmus test of leadership is the answer to this question:

Would anybody willingly follow me if they weren’t being paid to?

Based on that test, how many people in leadership positions are really leaders?

The One Thing All Leaders Do

Take a moment to ponder the answer to the question “Would anybody willingly follow me if they weren’t being paid to?”

If you’re drawing a blank, try answering this question: “Would anybody want to be like me?”  Note: that’s a different question than “Would anybody want to be successful like me?”  People who want to learn how to be successful like others are not true followers.  They are simply using those successful people to get ahead.  And successful people who want followers who admire them for their success are likewise using those counterfeit followers to stroke their own ego.

A true follower is someone who wants to be like another person, to learn from them, regardless of the trappings of success that person may or may not have.  A leader is someone who teaches and guides others, not about how to be successful like them, but about how they can reach their own potential.

In that way, to accept the mantle of leadership is to accept the responsibility to be a teacher.  Leading and teaching are inseparably connected.  But this connection between leading and teaching is potentially quite dangerous because even bad leaders—people who merely occupy leadership positions—are also teachers.  In fact, they are always teaching.   Here’s why.

People Scrutinize Leaders

Human beings are wired to seek out threats.  Because those in leadership positions have the power to affect our daily work and our livelihood, people pay far more attention to them.  Virtually nothing they say or do goes unnoticed. And people aren’t just watching what leaders say or do, they are inferring why their leaders do some things and don’t do others.  People are constantly watching leaders for cues about what they must do to stay out of danger and give themselves an advantage.  Whether they know it or not, all leaders, good or bad, are always teaching.

Whether they know it or not, all leaders, good or bad, are always teaching. Click To Tweet

Leaders accept and embrace this responsibility.  Those who merely occupy leadership positions are either unaware that they are always teaching, or they don’t fully grasp the responsibility that comes with it.

The Leadership Lessons We Teach

If you accept that leaders are also teachers, then the obvious question is “What am I teaching?”

What lessons are people learning from you when they watch you in meetings, or watch how you react when others disagree with you publicly?  Do they see someone who is primarily interested in advancing their turf and status, or do they see someone who is more interested in uplifting others and helping the organization they work for achieve its purpose?

What lessons are others learning from you when they see how you react to mistakes or negative feedback?  Do they learn from your example that when things go wrong the standard operating procedure is to blame others, or do they learn that the best thing to do is to forget about blame, take ownership of mistakes, and focus instead on fixing problems?

Most of us are totally unaware of the lessons we are teaching others, but leaders, true leaders, decide what kind of impact they want to have on others and do something about it.

All great leaders are lifelong students of leadership. Click To Tweet

If you want to be a great leader and teacher, you must first become a great follower and student.  All great leaders are lifelong students of leadership.  They work to change themselves first before they attempt to influence others.  True leaders follow Gandhi’s invitation to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Leaders who focus on becoming the kind of people that others want to emulate become like a pebble thrown in a pond whose influence is felt far beyond their personal reach.

About Michael Timms

I help organizations develop leaders at all levels through succession planning and management training. I’m the author of Succession Planning That Works, the ultimate succession planning guidebook & toolkit, and I speak about how to develop leaders and engage employees for higher performance.

3 Comments

  1. Dick Scott on April 17, 2018 at 6:16 am

    Tuesday, April 17, 2018
    Great article Michael and as I think back to the many people who considered themselves leaders, I can see them in the descriptions you have written above. It is interesting that in my early years of policing it was very military because it was only a short time after the second world war and leadership was by “fear”, if a mistake was made you looked for the person responsible and quick action was taken on the person. Interestingly enough you never dealt with what happened but rather “kill the messenger” and hope people responded. No one was ever taught how to fix the problem so they continued and our leaders of the day could not figure out why it was still happening.

    Hopefully today it is different and one thing it made me do was redefine how I wanted to treat people I was working with.

  2. Michael Timms on April 19, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks Dick for your comments. Yes, “kill the messenger” tends to still be the knee-jerk reaction of most managers. Hopefully that’s changing because as they say, “People who shoot the messenger stop getting messages.” And hopefully more managers follow your example and take a hard look at the impact they want to make on others and align their actions accordingly.

  3. Dick Scott on April 19, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for the reply Michael. I’m presently mentoring someone who will be replacing me in the future and this is the type of article I can share with him. Keep them coming!

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