Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Is It So Difficult to Become a Great Leader?

"A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”English proverb

In a way, the quote above says it all. However, I would like to peel this conversation in layers, like peeling an onion. I will take this opportunity to uncover why some people are only comfortable with smooth seas or situations. And others will comfortably sail into the storm.

How we see the world will dictate the
actions we take. Some see tough situations as life threatening. Others see the same situation as an opportunity to demonstrate their power or show what they are really made of. What does this have to do with leadership? Everything! Anyone can lead an organization when everything is going well. It is the person who can lead in the face of breakdowns, disruptions, problems, economic crisis, etc. that will make the best leader.

On paper, it would seem all people are equal. In reality, that is never the case. For some, whether they encounter a person or situation, they add their interpretation to what is occurring. What am I saying? Every moment of our lives something occurs. Let’s call the occurring reality. Reality is what is actually happening without the addition of our interpretation. We add a fable to the reality. The fable is a representation of something that has happened in our past or it is what our environment taught us to believe. For the most part, fables are made up of judgments, opinions, assessments, presuppositions, etc. We combine what is occurring – the reality – with the fable in our minds. In effect, we have created a new reality. The new reality does not exist, except in our minds. Yet, we react to it as though it is actually happening.

For example, if the boss says good morning at work, we interpret what his or her good morning means. We add a fable and say ‘did you hear how he said good morning? He is in a bad mood.’ We add the fable to reality and respond to the new manufactured reality as though it is a fact.

Now, you may say ‘so what’. Well, if you are a leader and you constantly interpret reality based on a fable, you may have a misrepresentation of what is actually occurring. That misrepresentation can cause you to poorly manage people and money. In other cases, it can cause you to misjudge people and hire the wrong talent. 

The leader who interprets reality with a fable attached may perform well when there are no problems. When the pressures from problems arise, that same manager may rely too heavily on fables. For that manager, they will believe they have made the right decision, even though their decision is based on something that never happened. In fact, they will defend themselves and justify why they made their choices. What they won’t see is their blind spot – an inimical behavioral pattern that is hidden from self – and how it causes them to misjudge.

For those who aspire to be a leader, it is wise to find someone you trust. They should be someone who is insightful and committed to your success, like an executive coach or mentor. They could be invaluable to your ability to uncover blind spots and develop yourself as a great leader. They will help you develop the skills to sail through smooth or turbulent waters.

While it is safe to say all people add fables to reality, there are some people who do it very often. For those who do it often, their leadership could be dangerous to the organization. They may head down a path that may serve self-interest. Needless to say, their decisions may not be in the best interest of others. To be a great leader, it takes, development, practice and a high commitment. How will you develop your leadership skills today?     

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.


  1. I don't really know if I qualify as a great leader, but throughout my life I have found myself in a position of leadership. I think there are different types of leaders and what defines them as great usually has something to do with the people being led reaching success, however that is defined. Some leaders are very good at getting things done-what I like to call moving the ball down the field and getting it over the goal line. Some leaders are good at inspiring people. And, some leaders are good at strategy.Maybe what makes a "great" leader is the rare indiviual who does all three. I think your point about listening (and actually hearing) is essential in all three types of leaders. I have always followed two rule as a leader: 1) higher people smarter than me and listen intently before I make a decision, and 2) delegate.....but follow up.

    1. Great input, Steve. Thank you. People underestimate the value of listening correctly to what is actually happening or being communicated. It makes a huge difference in leadership.

  2. Ted,

    I agree the real metal of leadership is best tested and skills honed when situations become abnormal, unexpected results happen or an organization goes into crisis / damage control mode. There definitely is a huge difference between management and leadership, which many people confuse. The hallmark of great leaders are those who lead by example. The leader doesn't ask anyone to do anything that they [the leader] is not willing to do themselves or has already performed the action with results attached.

    1. Well said, Carl. Thanks for your input. Crisis can make or break you.