Isaac Newton famously said that if he had seen far then it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. Yet dramatic as the statement is, it makes a poor model for understanding leadership, implying rising above others. When we achieve great things as leaders, we do so by standing shoulder to shoulder with others, not above them. Even the top woman or man at a leading firm never leads alone.
Teams and Alliances
The fact that we do not lead alone becomes particularly obvious when we ally with other businesses to achieve our goals. Audi, BMW and Daimler have banded together to try to buy Nokia’s Here mapping service, as part of their goal of taking the lead in putting a self-driving car on the road. If they succeed in their aim then none of them will be able to claim that they are the leader in self-driving cars. None of their CEOs can claim that they alone are leading the project. It will be the result of collaborative leadership, of leaders working with and relying upon one another.
But the truth is that we do this every day. Unless you’re a one-person business, you work alongside others. It hardly seems accurate to see yourself as the top of a pyramid if there is someone else in the organization better skilled than you at tracking the finances, designing products, maintaining IT infrastructure, or any of dozens of other jobs. You are all leaders at something within the organization, down to the mailroom who shows others how to sort post fast. It’s by leading together that we succeed.
Understanding Ourselves Through Others
As leaders, we can become the biggest obstacles to the goals we want to achieve and the changes we want to bring about, both in our organizations and in the world around us. It’s not intentional, but a matter of lack of self-awareness, not seeing when we are unintentionally crushing others’ voices, failing to lead by example, or creating an unsuitable environment for the work.
Think of the approach leaders in government take to teaching. They want high quality education to be provided, but the restrictions they place on teachers toward that end stifle creativity and productivity in the classroom, leading 40-50% of teachers to leave the profession in less than five years. It isn’t deliberately unproductive, but comes from leaders not recognizing their own failings.
Self-awareness isn’t something that you can achieve on your own. If you could see the flaws in how you work then you would have addressed them already. We need the input of others, however painful it may be. It lets us understand and refine our leadership styles, to identify and tackle our weaknesses. Even our own individual ways of leading are not forged by us alone, but by listening to others, using their thoughts and ideas to make ourselves better.
Avoiding Becoming a Lonely Leader
With our success dependent upon working with others, we need to make sure that they are able and willing to support us. If we don’t then we will be left without that support, lonely leaders struggling to get anything done.
To do this we need to acknowledge the contribution of others. This was one of the hallmarks of Dean Smith’s successful run as North Carolina basketball coach. Players who scored were encouraged to point to the person who had passed to them, reminding everyone that getting the ball in the net had been a team effort. Giving everybody the public credit they deserved helped to build success.
So acknowledge that you do not lead alone. Let the people you work with know it, and let the world know it. Because by cooperating and listening, we can achieve so much more.
Originally appeared on Fast Company: http://www.fastcompany.com/3050068/how-to-stop-managing-and-start-actually-leading