In the twilight of my Agency career I was asked to articulate my personal understanding of leadership. When I applied myself to the task I realized that, although I’d worked with many compelling CEOs, ECDs, Directors and so forth - and I had myself held some positions of responsibility - I didn’t really have a theory of leadership.
I determined to consider the characteristics of the leaders I’d worked with that I most admired. Surely if I gave due thought to their particular skills and personalities, some consistent themes and patterns would emerge.
First there was the Visionary. He was ardent, emotional and instinctive. He could see the future, and colleagues wanted to join him there. Then there was the Competitor. He was pugnacious, robust and strong. He created a culture of constant improvement and success. Then there was the Motivator, who made all her teams feel special and want to belong. Then there was the Puppet Master, who avoided the spotlight, and elegantly managed her critical relationships behind the scenes. There was the Problem Solver, who had an indifference to rhetoric and a passion for practicality. And finally the Philosopher King. He simply thought more profoundly about Clients, markets and brands than anyone else.
As I pondered my models of great leadership, I was quite struck by the fact that they had so little in common with one another. I considered creating a compendium of leadership skills: Vision, Competitiveness, Motivation, Relationship Management, Practicality and Wisdom. I could perhaps suggest that any aspirant leader exhibits all of these qualities.
But then I realized that none of my real life leaders had all of these skills. None was in any way a perfect paradigm. Indeed each of them was flawed, often in very engaging ways.
As I considered this conundrum, I understood that there was one thing that all my model leaders had in common. Their leadership style was consistently an extension of their own strong, distinctive personalities. The Visionary was indeed a passionate person; the Competitor was a sportsman to the core; the Puppet Master just couldn’t help but be charming. And so forth.
These leaders were authentic. But, critically, they were also larger than life. Their very real virtues had found a louder voice, a larger stage. They were hyperboles of themselves if you like.
This analysis has led me to some relatively straightforward advice for the aspirant leader. Don’t seek to be someone else, or indeed everyone else. As Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
Rather, you need to establish what you’re good at, and do it in a bigger, bolder way. Because leadership, in my opinion, is The Amplified Self.
And yet this is easier said than done. ‘Know thyself’ was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It was a resonant maxim precisely because self-knowledge is so difficult to attain.
So some soul searching is in order. And you may find it worth enlisting the help of your dearest friends and closest colleagues. What are you like at your best? What sets you apart? What makes you you? Look in the mirror. Isolate your truest strengths. And turn those strengths up to eleven.
If you think you have the charisma, stamina, vision and appetite to lead, don’t spend your time reading the textbooks, mimicking your predecessor, emulating your hero. Don’t be someone else’s shadow, their pale imitation. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
If you want to be a leader, be your own Amplified Self.
A version of this piece was first published in: BBH LABS 28 /07/2014