How to be a Leader: Practical Advice for the 99.9% of Us Who Aren’t Steve Jobs

John Tabita
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In the few weeks since Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple, articles about leadership have reached critical mass. In a non-Apple related post, Be a Leader not a Manager!, Paul Steinbrueck of Live Intentionally had this to say about leadership:

The question is, are you going to view your job (or volunteer position) as that of a manager or a leader?

Are you going to ask your boss, “What do you want me to do?” Or are you going to ask her, “This is what I think we should do. Can we move forward?”

It was a good article and I especially liked the part I just quoted. But at the same time, I’m a bit conflicted when I read it. As a boss, I’d certainly appreciate it if my people came forward with ideas to improve their job … up to a point. But too many ideas and I might just burst out with, “Enough already! Just go set some appointments.”

Everyone Wants to Lead; No One Wants to Follow

My ten-year-old son definitely has leadership qualities. He’s made the observation that other kids tend to listen to him and do what he says. His teacher confirmed this at a recent conference, but added, “sometimes he needs to make sure he has a following before he tries to lead.” In case you missed it, that’s code for, “Sometimes he’s bossy.”

I think it’s a given that we cannot be effective leaders if we first don’t understand how to submit to authority and follow leaders who are placed over us. Submitting to authority is an unpopular concept these days. But unpopular or not, it’s a reality we all live with. The true test comes when we tell our boss or client, “This is what I think we should do. Can we move forward?” and they say, “No.” When a client says that, it’s a lost sale. But when your boss tells you that … it’s a different matter entirely.

Here’s a scenario from the life of a freelancer. You have a client, and sometimes clients have some very bad ideas. Now, that client isn’t in authority over you in the same sense that a boss would be. Yet, he does have authority over the business for which you are developing a website or marketing program. Once you know what his goals and objectives are, your job is to tell him, “This is what I think we should do. Can we move forward?” After all, he hired you to solve a problem and propose a course of action, didn’t he?

Yet, I’ve had many clients who have not grasped the vision I’ve had for where I could help take them. We had one who scaled the project back to about half of what we proposed. Later, when he realized that what he got wasn’t enough, he contracted us for “phase two.” If he’d grasped the vision we’d originally painted, he’d have gotten there much faster, for less money.

The time to lead is when your client is a blank slate and open to your persuasion and influence. The time to follow is when he stops you in your tracks and tells you he wants to do it differently (or cheaper). That’s when you must submit and say, “What do you want me to do?” (Or you can take all your marbles and go home. It’s just hard to make a living if you keep doing that.)

Have you ever heard the saying that your greatest strength is your greatest weakness? We get out of balance if we always try to lead and are never willing to follow. That’s just being bossy. Others tire of that and won’t want to be around you too much.

On the other hand, always following and never leading is being passive. Everyone will say you’re a “nice guy” (or gal), but no one will respect you.

Leadership is simply the willingness to persuade, influence, and inspire those around you—regardless of whether they are a peer, a leader over you, or subordinate to you. Sometimes that means getting behind someone with a grand vision you believe in and saying, “I want to go where you’re going. What do you want me to do? And by the way, here are some ideas I have. Can we move forward?”

My son also told me that when he grows up, he wants to have his own company so no-one can tell him what to do. I don’t think he quite grasped the concept that, instead of a single boss, he’ll have 100 bosses telling him what to do. They’re called clients.

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  • http://LiveIntentionally.org Paul Steinbrueck

    Nice post, John! You make an excellent point that there’s a time to lead and a time to submit to authority. There needs to be a balance so you don’t end up being passive or bossy..

    • http://www.sitepoint.com/author/john-tabita/ John Tabita

      And thanks for your excellent article which got me thinking … and then writing. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christian.snodgrass Christian Snodgrass

    Nice article. It does amuse me how pretty much every job wants you to have “leadership qualities”, but if we were all the leads you’d wind up with nobody following and nothing getting done. Careful what you ask for. Sometimes it’s best to find people that are dependable and willing to take your lead (and tell you when you’re being an idiot).

    • http://www.sitepoint.com/author/john-tabita/ John Tabita

      Good point. One of the titles I’d considered for this article was, “How Can You be a Leader when No One Wants to be a Follower?”

  • Anonymous

    True to the last point. Clients are bosses.

  • Anonymous

    Hey John! First off, thank you for this great post. Before I started out as an entrpreneur I climbed the corporate ladder in a huge retail corporation. Therefore I absolutely understand what it would have meant if all my 650+ employees – who I was responible for – would have claimed to lead ;-)! When I started my second life as an entrepreneur I figured out pretty quickly what it means to have clients as well. So I agree with your whole post.

    • http://www.sitepoint.com/author/john-tabita/ John Tabita

      Thanks for your comment. I think a great test for leadership is how one acts when they are in a less-than-leadership position. I’m sure there were at least a few potential leaders within your 650+ employees that have risen up in your absence. My son had a hard time playing outfield when his heart’s desire was to play shortstop. I told him that he’ll never get the opportunity to play infield unless he determined to be the best outfielder he could be. As a supervisor, I may be on the lookout for leadership potential, but not from those who would “claim to lead,” but from those who show a willingness to serve by doing their very best.