The Leadership Illusion

Leadership is an illusion. There's no such thing.

I can see you're reluctant to believe me. I'm sure you'll be quick to tell me stories of kings and generals, princes and paupers. You'll point to any number of politicians, preachers, and performers past and present, people in 'positions' of leadership or persons with potential for influence. "I know leadership is real," you'll say, "I have 251 followers on Twitter to prove it. If they're following me I must be their leader, right!?"


And in your heart of hearts you know it's true. Leadership is an illusion.

And an important illusion it is. One person speaks. Another listens. One acts. Another follows. Is this genuine leadership or something else? A few years ago Penn & Teller performed an illusion in celebration of our country. In the illusion they burn an American flag - or do they? They speak with great respect of the principles this flag represents then apparently burn that flag in honor of those principles, only for the audience to discover the flag has 'magically' moved out of the flame and onto the flag pole just beyond twilight's last gleaming.

Like the magical mischief of Penn & Teller leadership is an elaborate illusion that shapes both the influenced and the influencer. With clever words the influencer seeks to capture your attention while you watch with wide-eyed wonder anticipating the reveal, ready to be wowed!

And that's the trick, isn't it? Because one speaks and another reacts there is an assumption of leadership. But is that what's really going on? Certainly it is a kind of leadership. We've all seen a form of leadership that's coerced. It was Al Capone who said, "You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word." It's amazing how far 'please' goes at the tip of the spear. But that's not really leadership either. That's another thing entirely.

The great leadership illusion is wrapped up in something I once heard my college professor say, "There is no such thing as a group decision. Only a bunch of individuals choosing to go the same place at the same time." Seth Godin would call people involved in this kind of group a tribe. I would call this the, "Go With" Principle of leadership.

Ultimately leadership happens, not because of clever lines and phrases, slick marketing, creative packaging or remarkable skill. Leadership happens because I'm interested in going somewhere with you. There's really only four reasons why I would travel with you.

  • I need what you have.
  • I want what you want.
  • I like where you're headed.
  • I like who you are.

It's the 'Go With' Principle that gives character-based leadership it's strength. Ultimately followers of character-based leaders aren't the mind-numbed masses going through the motion of building another widget. Followers of character-based leaders are leaders in their own right. They lead themselves and others. They don't follow out of coercion or obligation.

  • They follow because they need what you have - your strengths compliment their weaknesses and your weakness compliment their strengths.
  • They want what you want. It's not simply your vision for the world. It's our vision for the world and together we can achieve it.
  • They like where you're headed. This is more than mission. This is method. How we get there is important. We're not simply running toward the same destination we're taking the same vehicle to get there.
  • They like who you are. Your character aligns with theirs. The essence of who you are is somehow bonded to who they are. We see in each other the best of who we can be.

So today, with the illusion dispelled, whatever your goal, stop trying to lead and give someone a reason to go with you.

God Bless,

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