The common misunderstanding about leadership is that it’s all about power and authority. However, in fact, the true meaning of leadership, which has been buried throughout history, is deeply tied to who we are as human beings.
Leadership is actually a very simple concept. It’s not easy to apply, but at its core, it is quite straightforward: essentially all you need to know in order to be a conscious leader comes down to two powerful rules. If you grasp them and diligently put them into practice, you cannot fail to inspire others.
History has no shortage of prime examples of successful conscious leadership.
In the 6th century B.C., Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said that a leader was best when people barely knew he existed — that when his job was done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, “We did it ourselves.”
In Sun Tzu’s book ‘The Art of War,” the Chinese military strategist wrote: “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
In the 1st century B.C., the Roman consul Marcus Tullius Cicero understood that the leader could only deliver results through the actions of others; he had to focus his attention on others if any great accomplishment was to be made.
Historically, despite the Hollywood dramatizations, leadership was grounded in service, but that type of leadership was buried thanks to the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli.
In the 16th century, Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat and politician who famously authored “The Prince,” insisted that true leadership had to focus squarely on the actions of the leader, who should ruthlessly maintain power by any means — resorting to force or even by deceit, if necessary. Thus, in some cases, the leader would create a false impression that was quite unlike the actual reality. Essentially, the lesson learned from Machiavelli was how to lock up rule number one of leadership — and throw away the key.
Rule #1: It’s not about you.
In the 20th century, the imminent Frederick Taylor — an American mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency — introduced “The Principles of Scientific Management“.
One of his key principles: don’t seek to help people become their best as individuals. Instead, optimize the way their work is done. It was a revolutionary idea. And while “Scientific Management” was largely parked since the 1940s, the impact of Taylor’s philosophy still lingers today.
More recently came certain behavioral studies, which gave birth to the “Celebrity Chief Executive.” Cue a slate of autobiographies that were read like leadership manuals, all devoured by would-be leaders with the vain hope of mimicking and attaining brilliance. The rationale? The closer they emulated the traits and habits of a celebrity executive, the closer they’d be to success themselves. That was essentially the thinking that gain traction.
In stark contrast to this, rule number one of conscious leadership is: it’s not about you.
In a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, a good leader “can inspire people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” Although the temptation is to create more followers, conscious leaders actually create more leaders. Why? Because they know that the idea of the hero swooping in dramatically just in time to save the day just simply isn’t realistic.
Rule #2: It’s all about you.
In the 1970s, wider support for rule number one returned with the publication of “Servant Leadership” by Robert Greenleaf. However, that was only part of the equation. The truth is that rule number two was still missing.
There are many leadership models, but authentic leadership is the only current leadership model that brings you squarely to leadership rule number two: it’s all about you.
Rule number two is centered around the leader parking their ego. It is all about the leader having a clear understanding of who they are, what they stand for, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then behaving in a transparent way that draws all of these things together.
“In The Five Levels of Leadership,” author and pastor John Maxwell proposes that individuals tend to follow leaders for five primary reasons:
- They have no choice.
- They like the leader.
- The leader delivers.
- The leader helps them grow.
- They appreciate the leader and what they represent.
The famous adage, widely attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change that you want to see in the world,” is the best frame of reference for explaining rule number two, which is as simple and powerful as rule number one.
If ever you want to create change around you, it starts with who you truly are and how you behave. An entire range of theories — from Avolio to Zelecnics — points us to the ultimate truth: if we want to inspire others, then it has to be about who we are.
The iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, who ultimately rose to lead his country after spending nearly 30 years as prisoner while his captors ran an oppressive regime, knew this well. He encapsulated rule number two when he famously said, “I couldn’t change others until I changed myself.”
So when it comes to leadership, all we are doing in today’s world is repackaging and redistributing what’s been known for millennia, and yet too many of us are sitting on the floor surrounded by wrapping paper playing with the boxes rather than focusing on the core message. Life is a journey; sometimes we go around in circles, and there is no such thing as the perfect leader, but the next best thing is the conscious leader who embodies these two essential rules.
We live in a complex world that is crying out for simplicity, so let’s just take the lead on these two simple rules because there isn’t a single element of conscious leadership that doesn’t hinge on one of these two principles.