Uses of the Internet, blogs and social media sometimes appear in odd ways. A young contributor on LinkedIn used it to ask a question a few days ago that struck me powerfully. I won’t name her because the impact was about how much the question she posed is likely wrong. She aimed to start a conversation with “What leaders in the past have inspired your leadership style?” I thought it incredibly instructive, triggering many observations about leadership, though not the ones she perhaps expected, so I didn’t answer her post directly at all.
Here’s a young person doing what many great writers have done for centuries – looking for leaders in the past who made powerful impacts and essentially suggesting we copy them. That is to say perpetuate behavior that may not be the best, but for various reasons was the most powerful that could be achieved at the time. The mass of those leaders we know have tended to be military or political, but similar arguments apply regardless. They are people who stood out as incredibly unique, as if no one else contributed to whatever success – stand alone, one-of-a-kind, seeming to achieve single-handedly and certainly the driving, motive force behind events.
Those sorts of leaders will undoubtedly continue to exist. They will be remembered as uniquely fitting into their time and circumstances, to form a seemingly perfect match for the needs of their moment and place at least as seen by many, often millions, rightly or wrongly. Like Churchill in World War II England, a man who had studied and prepared his whole life for a conflict he believed was coming and which did eventually come with Germany, who was able to successfully micromanage a fierce and incredibly important series of battles over six years. But how many wars, for instance, need not have been fought and lives not lost, but for a controlling, demanding single leader who was capable of starting a war for their own and what they believed was their constituents benefit – World War II being a frightening example. What if Hitler has never been elected because the danger of such concentrated power had been recognized? Remember his “achievements” were disastrous for his own followers as well as so many millions of others.
By contrast, we have an opportunity to learn from new kinds of leaders in the present and imagine even better for the future. to be inspired by what could be rather than be instructed mainly by what appeared to succeed or fail in the past. That’s why Google’s recent work stands out as a key example with great potential to serve as a model for our time and the possibly the future. It represents what can be achieved. Not all of it universally used for good as many point out, since almost every achievement offers potentially a double-edged sword, but on balance a massive positive. Moreover the way they are attempting to achieve it is instructive – not satisfied with any past models of leadership, yet recognizing leadership is the most powerful force for advancing their strategies and setting out to discover for themselves what works best, for the betterment of all at least in their ideals. And how different the leadership style and results from, say, Enron or the big failed banks to pick examples from recent history and similar spheres of endeavor.
It’s not surprising that two young people might have started in leading their company without the models of the past limiting their approach. It’s impressive and valuable that they’ve arrived at studying so statistically and scientifically what worked in their own situation, rather than what has been done by countless leaders in the past, writing out their own potentially flawed and biased opinions of what made them successful as we might guess Mark Zuckerberg may eventually do or as we find others doing about him. Varied styles of leadership will continue to exist. These searches for a ‘best’ type of leader will continue. But does one route seem on balance the choice we should spend more effort on developing? Many more questions to ask..