Who do you think is a good leader? What is it about their leadership ability that you admire? I believe leaders are both born and made, meaning leadership can be inherent or learned. I’ve experienced amazing leaders and awful leaders. Interestingly, amazing leaders don’t always succeed, and awful leaders don’t always fail. That’s because leadership is much more than the subjective opinion of the observer.
The perceptions of leadership aren’t always in balance with the associated realities of leadership. With power and control comes accountability and responsibility. With praise and recognition comes judgement and lack of privacy. With popularity and desirability comes loneliness and pressure.
My point isn’t to suggest that we should feel sorry for leaders, or reward them more than they already are, rather that it’s important to realize that like many other things in life, there’s much more to leadership than what can be ‘seen’. Visually, I like the image of a floating iceberg where only a small piece of the whole is seen above the waterline. Leadership is usually characterized in terms of a few over-used buzz words (i.e. the visible tip of the iceberg), but those words don’t tell the whole story.
What is the Leadership Intersection?
Leadership is the intersection of engagement and risk-tolerance (see Intersection 3 graphic below). Most of the time leadership is described in terms of how it’s done, what it results in or the traits of a good leader. However, this ‘intersection’ is about the prerequisites to leadership, which aren’t typically analyzed.
Leadership requires two types of engagement. The first is the self-engagement of the leader. If the leader isn’t engaged in the company, effort, process or task it is felt, seen and / or heard by those that are supposedly being led. Disengagement doesn’t need to be explicitly stated or even labeled, because it’s easily apparent to even the least observant among us. Engaged leaders radiate optimism, possibility and potential. Usually they’re not foolish enough to guarantee results, and instead lead by example and inspire others to follow.
This leads to the second type of engagement which is the engagement of the team. Engaged leaders have an easier time engaging their teams. Team engagement isn’t just a can-do attitude, rather it’s about creating an environment whereby progress and success are realistic outcomes that serve a purpose that resonates with people (a little foreshadowing here of a future intersection). Belonging to a group with a common goal and the enablement to pursue it is powerful motivation.
Leadership is most successful when the leader and the team are both engaged.
Intersection 3: Leadership = Engagement + Risk-Tolerance
Similar to engagement, leadership requires two kinds of risk-tolerance. The first is personal risk-tolerance on the part of the leader as well as each team member. The willingness and ability to take chances or to do something not previously done without knowing the exact result or even the consequences can be scary. The type of culture and work environment the leader and company create will drive how much risk-averseness individuals demonstrate.
This leads to the second type of risk-tolerance. The collective tolerance of the individuals sets the level of team tolerance. In my experience 1+1 > 2 when it comes to the risk-tolerance of teams. A team of people eager to take (sometimes reasonable, sometimes unreasonable) chances is special. As in any scenario they won’t always be successful, but their informed fearlessness is a powerful tool for a leader to wield in the interest of moving the company forward at a pace not possible in a more risk-adverse setting.
When engagement meets risk-tolerance leadership happens. Leadership is the process of leading, which starts with these pre-requisites, continues with the participation of the parties involved and ends with the outcomes, which will inevitably be judged as successful or unsuccessful to varying degrees.
Although it’s a process, it’s difficult to replicate because just as no two people are the same, no two teams, companies or situations are the same. Each instance of leadership must be customized by the leader, which of course is challenging and (at times) exhausting, but it’s also what feeds our fascination with leaders and leadership. Some people make it look easy while others never seem to get it right.
Because there are many factors that go into ideal leadership, it’s easier to sabotage or prevent it than it is to create it because it’s impossible to control all the variables.
What Can Leaders Do?
Leaders must be willing to learn. While some are born with natural leadership abilities, the dynamics of each leadership opportunity are different and evolving, so there is learning that continually takes place. Good leaders look to those above, below and around them for leadership best practices.
These leaders also understand that leadership is a process, and they work to influence each stage to improve the chance of success and mitigate risk.
Wrap Up & Up Next
While engagement and risk-tolerance may not be commonly thought of when it comes to leadership, they’re key pieces of the underlying infrastructure on which good leadership operates.
Next time we’ll examine the 4th intersection of performance, which is the Differentiation Intersection.
In this series of articles, we explore The Intersections of Performance, of which there are 30. The Intersections of Performance framework is based on the experience and insights of Brett Simpson, Managing Director of Elevate Simply, over his 20+ years of leadership in large and small organizations, and as an entrepreneur, advisor and investor.