16 June 2014
After decades of research, there is still no consensus on leadership. So why not try a different angle?
There are dozens of theories ranging from those about great men who are born to rule through to situational, servant, expert and coercive models as well as the belief that anyone can be trained to lead. Some people have become very wealthy by touting these theories. And yet, we still can’t explain why some are drawn to follow others – even at risk to their lives!
The reality is that there is no simple ‘one size fits all’ model of leadership. If anyone tells you that they have discovered one – ignore them. To highlight the very personal nature of leadership, I’ve put together this somewhat tongue-in-cheek expose on the five secret links between leadership and sex appeal.
Secret Link 1: Leadership, like sex appeal, is impossible to define in a manner that makes it transportable from person to person and situation to situation.
Some find larger, curvaceous figures attractive and others prefer waifs. There’s really no mystery here – leadership is personal and situational. A lot of time could be saved by abandoning the search for the one ‘meta-definition’. To highlight the fraught nature of empirical studies, I heard of one theorist who assembled lots of data and noted that great leaders were generally taller, dark, muscular and had a deep, booming voice. He was asked if it were possible, therefore, for a small, bald, myopic person with a squeaky voice to be a world leader. The researcher stated that he doubted it. The questioner asked him to explain Mahatma Gandhi.
Secret Link 2: We recognise it instantly when we encounter it.
No courses, qualifications or introductions are required. The pupils dilate, lips go dry and breathing accelerates. We are excited! With scarcely a word being said, the acknowledgement of both leadership and sex appeal is made.
Secret Link 3: We feel compelled to act on the impulse.
Having made the connection, some inner urge drives us to formalise, in some way, the connection between us and that ‘other’. That’s because, at the heart of the matter is personal influence. Leadership is a relationship between a leader and at least one follower. Both have a role to play in pursuit of a commonly held goal. All these three elements are needed for the leadership process to function. In addition, the leader must clearly articulate the goal to the follower and win their support towards its achievement.
Secret Link 4: The effect is independent of what other people think.
Leadership, like sex appeal, is neither good nor bad. Criminal gangs have strong leaders as do churches and sports teams. The outcome, in ethical terms, will simply reflect the value set of the leader in that situation. Who says a 70 year old wearing pearls and a tartan mini skirt (before lunch) can’t have sex appeal?
Secret Link 5: Our lives feel emptier when it’s not around us.
Its departure leaves us longing for more. So we attempt to manufacture the feeling with ‘leader porn’ – movies, books, courses etc. We learn truisms and clichés such as “never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself”, “lead from the front”, “be fair, firm and approachable” and “praise in public, punish in private.”
No matter what behaviour is demonstrated or what the goal is, what makes a leader is simply the first follower. What makes a person sexy is the first admirer. Take the example of a person at a rock concert that rushes to the edge of the stage and starts to do some weird dance. She is alone and potentially an object of derision. This changes when the first person steps forward and starts to do the dance as well. Before long the whole arena is full of people doing the ‘funky chicken’ and the girl is the hottest thing online for a while.
So stop worrying about developing your leader skills through one-size-fits-all theories. Explore the rich tapestry of options. Find someone who you admire and copy what they do. Pay attention to the people copying your style as they are your followers. Unless they start stealing your rubbish bags in which case they are more likely to be stalkers. Enjoy leading and enjoy following (and learning from) great leaders. And don’t take it all too seriously – life is a terminal disease!