Great Leaders Don't Do It Alone . . . They Get Help
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
There’s a model we all have in our heads, of the fearless, solitary leader: the John Wayne-like character out ahead of the pack, carving a path in lonely glory for others, less leaderlike, to follow.
Not my experience of reality.
The best leaders I know see success as a group endeavor; they call out the best in their folks, so that the entire team or enterprise can take part in creating success. They carve the path together.
But what’s even more important, they ask for and accept help along the way. Good leaders know they can’t do it all themselves, and that even the strongest person needs support. In the famous words of John Donne:
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.
Good leaders know and live this. At the same time, they are independent and self-sufficient; they don’t hide behind others, or shirk their responsibilities by over-relying on others. So what kind of help and support is useful and appropriate for a leader?
In Leading So People Will Follow, I talk about the six attributes of “followable leaders,” based on the archetypal characteristics found in leader tales from all over the world. These leader tales almost always take the form of a quest entered into by a young boy who has to demonstrate these six attributes in order to rescue the princess and/or slay the dragon and finally to become the good and just king.
These stories also generally include 3 key types of supporters who appear to aid the leader-in-training. There’s almost always someone with magical powers or unusual insight; there’s almost always someone who believes in the boy, even when others don’t; and finally, there’s almost always someone (or someones) who appear along the way and just happen to have a skill or resource critical to the hero’s success. I call these three different types of helpers Wizards, Well-wishers andWild Cards. They each appear and offer their support in response to the boy’s demonstration of one or more of the attributes, and they support him along the way to demonstrate or develop the other attributes so that he can complete his quest and become a true leader.
In our modern world, these three kinds of supporters are equally critical to our success; great leaders know this, and take advantage of it. Here’s what these “friends for the journey” look like in the 21st century:
Wizards provide us with important insights that help us to avoid failure, and they offer us essential skills or knowledge we don’t already possess. In the leader tale, the wizard often appears to provide counsel at critical junctures—counsel that, if the hero can attend to it, keeps him out of the villain’s clutches and sets him on the path to success. Wizards are people who see you clearly, and tell you what they see; who want to help you if they feel you have the potential to be a good leader; who have insights into your challenges, and can offer possible solutions. Finally, wizards have “magic”: they offer approaches, processes, templates, or learning that can help you become a better leader. Wizards help you grow—and every leader needs that.
Well-wishers are your core supporters: they are completely in support of your success. In the leader tales, the hero’s father or mother is often the core well-wisher; he or she supports the boy’s journey, even when resources are scarce and even when others can’t see the boy’s potential. As a leader, your well-wishers are those people who celebrate you as you are and also see your potential. They inspire you to be your best and support your efforts to succeed. They are your biggest fans, and their consistent support is your haven and your rock. Leading well can be tough—well-wishers make it doable.
Wild-cards are just that: in the leader tales, they’re generally creatures (trolls, fairies, etc.) who seem like a danger or impediment at first, but when the hero wins them over, they’re revealed to have the one thing he needs to fulfill his quest. Wild cards exist all around us: that wacky guy down the hall who has a reputation for being the biggest curmudgeon or the flakiest dreamer in the organization…but who may in fact have the one quirky skill-set you need to finish your stalled project. The way to find wild cards and get them on your side is to be a good leader: when you are far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy it gives you the best possible chance of calling out and engaging any wildcards in the vicinity.
It’s fascinating that in these leader tales, the hero is almost invariably offered these 3 kinds of support; when he takes advantage of them, he is successful. It seems to me the message being communicated here is this: You cannot do this on your own; leading is a group endeavor. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—and be humble enough to accept it when it’s offered.