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Are You a Leader, or Just Pretending to Be One?


Feb. 3, 2016 Harvard Business Review

We’ve rarely needed leaders more — but wanted the leaders we have less.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten what leadership really is, and confused it with what it isn’t.

What’s not leadership? For one thing, performing. Leadership is not making the right faces, memorizing the right lines, pumping your fist in precisely the right way at exactly the right moment. It’s being. Let me explain the difference. What happens, for example, when the situation goes off script, or when the audience heckles, or when the walls of the theater begin to collapse? The actor, if he cannot improvise, is left paralyzed. Yet that is what we see today: leader after leader left paralyzed by the unexpected turmoil of an uneasy age in an uncertain world, whether those leaders are political, social, cultural, or corporate. So we study the scripts, memorize the lines, carefully examine the angle of our fist pumps.

I’ll give you a simple example. No one would have predicted just a decade ago that Nokia would be something like a distant memory of a household name. Yet while its decline was happening, Nokia’s leaders, though they were acting like leaders — reassuring, confident, calm, giving fine speeches — were not being leaders. They weren’t doing the things they had to do to set their company up for the future, things that, precisely because the future is uncertain, sometimes make you look hesitant, or fumbling, or foolish.

Nor is leadership performing in that other sense, the sense of being “a high performer.” And yet too often we look for leaders among the profit maximizers and goal attainers. But a leader’s fundamental role isn’t merely to perform the same tasks as yesterday, just more efficiently; it is to redefine the idea of performance entirely. Consider: Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, probably wouldn’t have made a great Sotheby’s auctioneer. Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, probably would have sucked as CEO of Encyclopedia Britannica. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, probably wouldn’t have been a great classifieds editor.

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