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The “Secret” of Leadership

Or “How to be a totally ineffective leader in 4 easy steps!”

Hmmmmm, that doesn’t sound as attractive as the main title, right?! No, it doesn’t, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant.

It’s not often that I am wanting to talk about “secrets,” but in this case I’m going to make an exception.

I recently saw a tweet by a “renowned leadership expert” talking about “the secret of leadership.”

And that is when I lost it. Here’s why…

The “common sensical”

The author went about to explain their “secret.” I was neither impressed or amused. It’s not that I objected to the content or the way in which the author presented it. I understand that each author has their own perspective, yet there was something about this that rubbed me the wrong way.

What was it, you ask? It was the common sense view of leadership that most traffic in.  I am not against all “common sense.”

For example, here’s a piece of good common sense:

Always handle a weapon as if it were loaded, even if you know it’s not

The aspect of common sense I have a problem with is that which has people get or stay stuck. Let me explain…

The real “secret” in leadership

There’s no end to places where there are lengthy discussions about leadership:

  • “Born” versus “Became”
  • Styles
  • Role models
  • Traits
  • Theory
  • Models
  • Techniques
  • Etc.

It’s not that they shouldn’t be addressed. They should. They can serve as important starting points to gain insight.

Here’s a piece of bad common sense:

There’s something about leadership that you don’t know that if you knew it, you’d be a better leader

This, my friends, is the real “dirty little secret” that underlies almost every conversation about leadership.

It’s just bad common sense!

Not bad, as in “evil.” More akin to providing false certainty or calling for faith in something vacuous.

Understanding the Impact

This bad common sense is the ultimate “self-fulfilling prophecy”! Why?

Because it reinforces the notion that there is something that you must learn before you start leading.

For many of the prospective leaders I’ve worked with, this either keeps them stuck (as in, avoiding leading) or being ineffective at it!

The Despair Cycle of Leadership

Let’s have a look at what I call “The ‘Despair Cycle’ of Leadership”

The “Despair Cycle” of Leadership

Step 1

This step, in the form of a short phrase, captures what most people seem to feel when first given an opportunity to lead. After all, given all of the leaders that they (the potential leader) have experienced throughout their lives, there are surely more knowledgeable and experienced leaders available then they. Recognizing this fact, the potential leader trades their ability to lead with a good excuse for why they aren’t going to. In many organizations, having the excuse why they cannot or shouldn’t be trusted to lead is enough of a reason to “get off the hook” for leading, isn’t it?

Step 2

This step is perhaps the easiest of all of them. Why? Because there are so many things to choose from! Review the list that we talked about earlier in the blog, and you’ll see exactly why. At this point, the prospective leader has a smorgasbord of choices for the different directions they can go in. Obviously, the area needs to be researched thoroughly, to ensure that all of the potential directions are being covered.

Step 3

Now, with their research completed, it’s time to start the long process of getting ready to lead. There must be a plan to get ready to lead, right? Even though we’ve made a choice on the direction that were going to move in, there is still much to do to lay out the “right plan.” There will be lots of reading, classes, research, simulations and lots of other things to help “get ready” to lead. Once the plan is finished, the prospective leader can start dutifully following the plan, ultimately leading us to our next step.

Step 4

In this crucial step, our prospective leader has invested much time, money, and energy in getting ready to lead. The original opportunity may or may not be there to step into. Either way, the prospective leader has to ask themselves one or more serious questions about their leading. Do I now:

  • Know what I need to know about leading?
  • Have the skills needed to be a successful leader?
  • Feel like I will do a good job as a leader?
  • or some other similar question

“Mind the Gap”

In considering the questions above, there is a potential trap. In Step 2, we identified all of the different areas that someone might need to know something about in order to be a leader. In Step 4, we find ourselves at an important point — making an assessment of progress to date. If a “weak self-assessment” (thoughts, feelings, or other subjective criteria) is used, the prospective leader might determine that they are still not ready and go quickly back to Step 1. If a “strong self-assessment” (specific learning goals, objective performance criteria) is used, prospective leader might determine they are ready (and start leading) or determine they are still not ready and go back to Step 1.

While it might not seem so at the service, there is a significant difference between the strong and weak self-assessments described here. In theory, most people would probably describe themselves as being capable of doing their own strong self-assessments. In practice, few people have the discipline and proper perspective to do so. It’s not a matter of capability, it’s a matter of context. The weak self-assessment is what helps the “despair cycle” remain in place. Left unchecked, this self-assessment turns into a self-inhibitor — eventually, the logical choice is to give up and write it off as something which should not be considered again.

The “Really Real Secret of Leadership”

The real secret of leadership is this:

Leading is what has you become more capable in leading and as a leader.

It’s not a spectator sport, it requires your participation.

All other factors being equal, the only prerequisite to leading is choosing to start.


In my next post, we’ll look how to counteract the “Despair Cycle” with a more operational/functional orientation towards leadership.

Any questions or comments? You know where to find me!

Posted In:Org/Personnel Development
Tags Used:Abilities, Knowledge, Leadership, Learning, Self-Assessment, Skills
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