Leadership expert Simon Sinek closed the 2016 General Session with a compelling challenge to the ISPA community: “Every single person in this room has the opportunity to be the leader you wished you had. So make a choice. Be the leader you wished you had.”
Author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, Sinek highlighted how leadership is not for the faint of heart as it required tremendous personal sacrifice, one that only those with the capacity for genuine selflessness are capable of giving. Here are five takeaways to awaken the great leader in you:
1. The true definition of leadership is taking care of those in our charge.
What does it take to be a leader? According to Sinek, the problem with leadership is that there is no standard definition of what it means to be a leader. “Some think leadership means being in charge. Others think leadership is being the most senior person. But here’s the good news, there’s actually an objective definition of what leadership is, and it’s based on the fact that we are human beings and social animals,” he says. He points back to our instinctive desire to feel safe. In fact, this is true even as far back as in the “cave man” days when we rely on others for our survival to help us identify or avoid danger. “Our very survival depends on our ability to live in communities wherein we can trust and cooperate with each other in order to feel safe,” he says.
2. Great leaders offer those in their charge a safe environment.
What separates a good leader from a boss is that great leaders create a circle of safety. “When there is a circle of safety, the natural human reaction is trust and cooperation. When we do not feel safe in our own environment, the natural human reaction is cynicism, paranoia, mistrust and self-interest,” Sinek says. He stressed how we, as social beings, respond to the environment we are in. Put a good person in a bad environment, and he or she tends to perform poorly, and vice versa. “This is why we have leaders because leaders are responsible for setting the conditions to create a safe environment.”
What is often a sign that people do not feel safe in their own work environment? “If you work in a company where it’s standard practice for people to feel the need to send a ‘cover your ass’ email after every decision they make, that is a sign that people are taking time and energy out of their day away from their job in order to protect themselves from their own company. When staff members do not feel safe at work, the ones who suffer the most are customer and company,” he says.
3. To inspire action in others, good leaders offer a purpose or a cause.
In creating a circle of safety, Sinek says it’s important that leaders give those in their charge a sense of destination so that they feel and know that the work they do is contributing to something bigger than their own selves. “This is what gives our lives and work a sense of value,” he says.
But to do this, one must first have a vision. A vision, he says, need to be concrete, like having mile markers in a marathon. “The reason why it is called a vision is because you have to be able to see it,” he says. “The difference between a goal and a vision is the finish line. A goal is 26.2 miles, I don’t know what it looks like but I know how far it is. A vision, on the other hand, is a crystal clear sense of what the future state looks like but I don’t have an idea how far it is. In reality, every goal takes us closer to that vision.”
4. Being a leader is similar to being a parent, it comes with great personal sacrifice.
Leadership, according to Sinek, is a choice and a daily practice. “Like becoming a parent, everyone, has the capacity to be a leader. It doesn’t mean everyone should be a leader nor everyone wants to be a leader,” he says.
So how do you become a good leader? According to Sinek, leadership is a balance of intensity and consistency. As an example, he says practicing little things that display selflessness, like opening the elevator when someone is rushing toward it even if you are running late to a meeting or refilling the coffee maker at work when nobody is looking, will help develop leadership traits that will eventually become a natural habit when bigger decisions are required at work. But if leadership is difficult and requires a lot of sacrifice, is it worth it to strive to become a leader? “We persist to become a leader for the unpredictable glimmers, such as seeing your team members solve a problem without your help, or a staff member accomplish more than he thinks he is capable of, or seeing someone’s confidence grow at work—these are the things that make all the sacrifices worth it,” he says.
5. True leaders take risks of trusting others first.
Leadership is hard because there are risks involved, especially in giving trust to others. “At some point, a leader cannot do the work, they have to trust their people to do the work. A leader is not responsible of the result, a leader is responsible of the people responsible of the result. Unfortunately, there many of those in top position who don’t make this transition,” Sinek says.
I’ve never heard of great leaders who would say: “Prove to me why I should trust you with more responsibility.” What great leaders do, like a parent, is they assess the skills of those in their team and sometimes offer them more responsibility even before that person thinks he or she is ready for it. That’s one of the risks of leadership—sometimes you get it wrong. When they fail, we sometimes had to go to them and say, “I’m sorry, I put this all on you too soon.” This is one of the reasons why we call them leaders, because they chose to go first. They chose to take the risk.
Inspired by Simon's words? The 2017 ISPA Conference & Expo registration is now live so don't miss your chance to attend influential keynote presentations like this one!
Note: this blog post first appeared as an article in the November issue of Pulse.