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Leadership Means Nothing Without These Three Foundational Elements

By Kent Mulkey

In “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time,” a book by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the author identifies five virtues that are almost universally praised by popular leadership writers – modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and selflessness – and argues that too many real-world leaders ignore these virtues.

Leadership virtues aside, you cannot ignore three critical elements—a need, a goal and a team—when engaged in the practice of leadership.

A NEED

Right about this time of year a self-described leader might be sitting on a beach in Mexico reading one of the latest in a dizzying string of leadership books. Nearby, a swimmer offshore is caught in a riptide and fighting for his life. Is the leader willing to risk his life and dive in to save the drowning swimmer? Will he summon a lifeguard? Will he call 911? If no one takes action, who will notify the family their loved one is lost and presumed drowned? 

Some years ago, I assumed the leadership of a senior community that was coming apart at the seams—much like an old baseball held together with glue and duct tape. It was the single greatest test of my fortitude, skills, endurance, and sanity. There was a need, which called on me to reach down deep into all I was made of to make a go of it. My title meant very little. Being the leader meant everything.

A GOAL

You’ve heard it said that leadership is rarely about position. Leadership is about working with and influencing people and organizations to take action to reach an agreed-upon destination

Let’s say you ask me how to get somewhere you’ve never been before. I could outline step-by-step directions or draw a map to show how to get to your destination. Or, I could say, “That’s not too far out of my way. Why don’t you just follow me?”

A TEAM

In just a few words, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles taught a major lesson: “I think the big thing that helped me was knowing that I didn’t have to be Superman. I have amazing teammates, amazing coaches around me. And all I had to do was just go play as hard as I could, and play for one another, and play for those guys.”

The best leadership advice I ever received was from my friend and former boss Eric Swanson. Eric often reminded us budding leaders to “always go into battle with other people. That way; it’s a lot more fun; you experience it together; and besides, you won’t make it through on your own.”

As an old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Look around. What need are you uniquely talented to meet?

What action can you take to address it?

Who’s on your team to get it done?

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