The passing of Kobe Bryant this week had us reflecting on the man he was and the time we spent working with him. When we worked with Kobe, he was undergoing the transition from being number 8 to number 24. This transition was much more than just a number change for him; it had personal significance. 24 meant dedicating himself every hour of the day to being a better person that others could look up to; it meant going from focusing just on himself and his stardom to focusing on being a leader and helping his teammates achieve their goals. Kobe realized that leadership is a choice and that it takes dedication, practice, awareness, constant learning, and skill. Leaders are made, not born. And, great leaders never stop trying to be better not just for themselves, but for those they have the honor of leading. Rest in peace Kobe.
Few people have an inborn passion for the discipline of leadership. Yet, many end up in a leadership position at some point in their lives, not because it comes from an inner desire, but because that’s the only way to progress in a company.
They do it because they want more pay or a more esteemed position. And, people get promoted to leadership positions not because they’d be a good leader but because they’ve excelled at their current position.
What makes someone a good doer, doesn’t make them a good leader. The skills are different. In fact, what made them good at getting things done may hinder their ability to lead other people: they focus on getting people to do a lot of things—what they were good at—instead of looking at the bigger picture.
This problem is compounded by three other issues: how they’re trained for leadership, what type of people are likely to seek power, and how their bosses have behaved.
First, training is usually little more than a multi-day leadership seminar at best, after which they’re supposed to take the information they learned and somehow magically apply all of it without any previous experience in their new position. It’s too much to ask.
Second, as Abraham Maslow noted, people in positions of power are usually not the people who should be in positions of power: “The person who seeks for power is the one who is just exactly likely to be the one who shouldn’t have it, because he neurotically and compulsively needs power.”1 People seeking positions of power—management and leadership positions—are likely to seek the positions to build themselves up instead of doing what leaders do: find value in the growth and success of other people and the organization.
Third, their bosses are rarely good role models. At worst they’re narcissists who only care about themselves. But usually, they’re just people trying to do their best but are ill-equipped since they’ve gone through the same seminars and probably spent most of their time struggling with the day-to-day execution and didn’t have the time or will to care about the bigger picture.
Ultimately the lack of strong leadership isn’t usually an individual’s fault: they’re doing the best they can and know how to do. It’s an organization’s issue: it’s hard to find natural leaders, the discipline of leadership isn’t taught in school, and they don’t have a good way to groom leaders.
Creating an organization where leadership is widespread requires an organizational reconfiguration around two things.
The first is developing a strong, inspiring vision for the company that aligns with employees’ personal vision gets people to believe that they are part of an inevitable future they all finding motivating. This moves people away from “my” goals to “our” goals and creates the conditions that favor people working together instead of for self-interest.
The second is promoting people who have a passion for leadership. They may not be the best person at the current job—the best doers aren’t necessarily the best orchestrators. In most companies these people will be hard to find—you win by standing out not working together. But when you have an organization with a culture of us, those that embrace that the most fully will stand out.
Leadership, ultimately, is about creating a better tomorrow, not just for the leader themself but for all the people they lead and the organization.
- Abraham H. Maslow, Eupsychian Management, 1965. ↩