In December, an article published in Nature described a new advanced alloy. Combining magnesium with ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles, a team from UCLA created a new material that is lighter and stronger than any we’ve known before, opening up the potential for rethinking next-generation aircrafts, cars, space travel, electronics, and bio-medical devices.
Reading about the breakthrough made me think that the greatest leaders are in fact, human advanced alloys. Their combination of intelligence, curiosity, and emotional quotients make them especially strong, quick, and resilient in helping lead teams and organizations in discovering untapped potential and ideas.
Unfortunately, most of what we know as leadership today is often conflated with authority and command. Authority, however, can be assigned without being earned. Give a person a nice-sounding managerial title, and he or she automatically assumes authority. Our hierarchical organizational structures keep adding to this conflation. With ever-expanding pyramid structures and layers over layers of management, these concentrate power and authority at the top, unwittingly creating an elusive, often divisive race to title-dom.
But in many cases there is no organizational chart, no titles, and yet there are great leaders. Think of civil rights movements all over the world such as the ones in South Africa, India, or here in the U.S. Nelson Mandela was a leader for nearly 50 years without a formal designation or a chain of command. We also see many such examples of these types of leaders in our personal lives – my mother, for example, embodied similar qualities of dedication to a mission, educating children from underprivileged backgrounds, often contributing more than half of her meager teacher’s salary to aid in their tuition.
Mandela’s strength was drawn from a commitment to a core idea and belief in the equality of all people, absolved of any self-interest, combined with a mission and a willingness to work the hardest to achieve it. Military leaders sharing their insights with business leaders point out that the Randian ideal of uncompromising self-interest is not the way wars are won. Military commanders are trained to put the success of the mission ahead of self-interest (and ultimately, personal safety). So, of course, did Mandela, or Gandhi, or King, leaders so successful that they do not even need first names, let alone titles – which were conferred upon them post-success.
Leaders have an obligation to offer clear direction and to dedicate themselves to the mission. But that’s not all there is in the alloy of leadership: Great leaders are principally great catalysts. In their presence, the talents, ideas, and dedication that others bring to the mission can flourish. This is where leadership falters for many, especially for those who value authority above all.
For those aspiring to lead, there are lessons to be learned: Don’t chase titles, follow your passion. Don’t assume authority, earn it. Don’t accumulate power, instead, accumulate ideas.
And if you already have the title that gives you authority, consider the deep difference between authority and leadership. It’s precisely at the moment when you have the title that it is easy to forget that other people’s ideas might be better than yours, or that the most productive meeting might be one in which you say the least.
Direction, hard work, and catalytic team engagement: No title can argue with that combination.
Follow me on Twitter: @vivek_bapat
For more thoughts on effective leadership, see Working And Leading With Purpose.