“Who is the leader?” Dad wanted to know. His son was watching cartoons, and Erwin McManus was asking him to explain the characters and tell him what was going on.
The boy, with great delight, began to tell all about his cartoon heroes.
Erwin thought he’d ask him a simple question about who the leader was, and his son gave him an astonishing explanation. Pointing to one of the characters, he said, “Well, that’s the leader.”
“How do you know?”
He said, “The leader always stays in the back and only gets involved when everyone else is about to die.”
There you have it: what McManus describes as the Marvel Comics Theory of Leadership (more here).
True, leaders are often perceived that way. But that’s not how leaders emerge, or how they last in the world where characters actually breathe. If you’re looking to:
- Hire/elect/promote a person to a place of leadership,
- Strengthen your own leadership abilities,
- Identify the extent to which you or someone else are actually leading people, or
- “Find the parade and get in front of it,”
then consider leadership from the front. Here, from followers’ perspectives, are seven ways to tell who the leader is.
1. Who do people look to when they want someone to share their joy or pain?
People follow compassion. Red Auerbach, who coached the Boston Celtics to nine NBA championships, had an ironic, crude way of expressing it. When asked the secret to being a great coach, the cigar-chomping coach replied, “You gotta’ love the bastards!” And when asked how to know whether you’re that kind of coach, Auerbach said, “You know it when many years later your players keep calling you back to tell you about their families, their careers and their lives.”
2. Who do people trust in the world of ideas?
You can’t convince until you have first been convinced. That’s the difference between leaders and typical politicians. Leaders actually believe something with conviction, and move in the direction of their beliefs. Politicians wait to see what they believe until the latest polls come out (a point hilariously made in Kevin Costner’s recent film, “Swing Vote”). People don’t always agree with their leaders, but they do tend to gravitate toward those who believe in their own ideas.
3. Who is the guy/gal who’s actually going somewhere?
The best leaders practice self-leadership before they seek to influence others. The clearer your direction, the greater your influence. The more specific your plan, the clearer your direction. Paul once said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). That has credibility and clarity. That’s leadership. Maybe that’s why this man’s life and words continue to inspire nearly 2,000 years later.
4. Who do people turn to for clarity and truth?
While the philosophers and pseudo-poets rub their chins and question whether truth exists (what a bore), leaders, in the words of Napoleon and others, define reality. People in real life actually ask that recent funny cultural idiom: What just happened? Leaders are the ones who provide meaningful, reliable answers to that question. They practice that biblical principle of “speaking the truth in love.” Leaders don’t slap panic buttons. Nor do they try to pretend there are no problems. They just start with the facts. Example: Rudy Giuliani in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
5. Who do people turn to for solutions to their problems?
I mentioned Napoleon previously. His actual statement was, “The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.” Anybody can point out problems. Anybody can howl for change (see funny video here). Real leaders offer hope and solutions – solutions that they themselves are ready to participate in and model. They encourage people to dream again, and to live in confidence that those dreams can come true.
6. Who embodies a cause greater than his/her own self interest?
“Is there not a cause?” David asked a pack of armor-clad cowards. That question still serves as the underpinning to greatness in individuals, organizations, and even nations. People are hungry to stand for something. To believe in something that will outlive them. To pledge themselves, “their lives, and their sacred honor” to something greater than feeling good or hoarding money. Leaders, fueled by vision, commitment, and confidence, pursue that kind of cause.
7. Where do people turn for someone to confront their enemies?
People want to feel safe, and they instinctively know they live in a hostile world. Despite all the whiny, “Why do they hate us?” drivel you hear sometimes from conflicted Americans, the truth is, everybody has human, institutional, and metaphoric opposition. Leaders are the ones who will say what we all want to say, but don’t. They’re the ones who will call the bad guys out of the saloon and pull the trigger. They’re the ones who make us feel like we have an advocate.
Rick Warren’s proverb about leadership pretty much cuts through all of this: “He that thinketh he leadeth and hath no one following is only out for a walk.”