Great Leaders Lift All the Boats

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” —Ralph Nader

If great leaders are great because they aspire to a purpose greater than themselves (see What Really Makes a Great Leader?), the greatest of leaders aspire to achieving that purpose by developing more leaders in the process.  They create the proverbial tides that lift all the boats.  These greatest of leaders make a habit of giving away their leadership assets: the knowledge, instincts, lessons, contacts and resources that helped them to succeed. Their conscious goal is to build a new generation of leaders who are, if anything, better than the leaders who preceded them – better, even, than those who are teaching them.

Steve Farber, author of Greater Than Yourself: The Ultimate Lesson of True Leadership, defines three things these boat-lifting leaders attend to in their own leadership styles:

  • Expand yourself: “You expand yourself in order to give yourself to others.” Farber notes that boat-lifting leaders shift perspective from isolated to connected, from alone to interdependent, from me to us. They are conscious of what has propelled them into leadership and what they have to offer.  They continually build on their own skills, to be able to offer more to others.
  • Give yourself: “Act instead of just watching others act or hearing about it in the news.” Farber sees leaders who ‘philanthropize’ their lives, intentionally and purposefully investing in others, and at the same time holding them accountable for their commitments to their own growth.
  • Replicate yourself: “Pay it forward, and demand that those you teach pay it forward, as well.” Farber’s message is not that leaders seek to make others like them, but rather that they challenge others to also give away their assets in the hope of widening the circle of development.

Think of the greatest leader in your personal history, and it is likely someone who offered you and others the greatest degree of himself or herself.  I think of Marilyn (not her real name), who offered me these kinds of boat-lifting tides during my career:

  • She clarified the political climate and players and who needed what types of information and had what preferences.
  • She directed me to internal and external resources that she personally knew, with an introduction, to give me a jump start on big assignments.
  • She warned me of obstacles for my projects that might be arising on the horizon.
  • She suggested ways I might talk about my work to make my case more compelling.

What I also recognized was that Marilyn did not favor me with this treatment – she favored everyone with it.

Interestingly, if you were to ask the young generation at that company who were the greatest mentors they had, most of them would have been people mentored by Marilyn.  She had lifted boats a generation beyond her tenure in the company.

So give it away and become the greatest leader that you can be – greater, even, than yourself.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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