I’ve been speaking about leadership for several years now. I’ve read hundreds of leadership books and articles and case studies and biographies, although I have to space them out because eventually your brain begs you to stop torturing yourself and to go do something enjoyable instead. Why? Because after you’ve read a few of them, you start to realize that everyone is saying exactly the same thing. Be nice, listen to others, get your team involved, servant leadership, admit your mistakes – the messages about how to become a well-respected leader are so repetitive that tedious doesn’t even begin to describe it. That’s why I structured Unleash Your Inner Tyrant! the way I’ve done, to provide the same kinds of messages in a different (and hopefully more entertaining) way.

But lately I’ve started reading more and more biographies of the “great” leaders who have built billion-dollar empires or otherwise done things that have made people want to build statues of them – Steve Jobs, George Washington, Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch, etc. And the more of those I read, the more I’m struck by how not terribly good most of these people are. Steve Jobs was famously difficult to work for and created a culture at Apple that has produced virtually no standout individuals, a fact usually attributed to Jobs’ inability to tolerate anyone that might even remotely be considered a rival; George Washington receives most of his praise from people who didn’t have to work directly with him and progressively less and less from those who were subjected to his imperious temper on a regular basis; Rupert Murdoch is almost comically paranoid; and Jack Welch fired more people in the history of business. These are not the qualities of the sensitive, open, servant leader that we’re all told we should strive to become.

So what’s going on? In a nutshell, the qualities that create good leaders are not the same qualities that create great leaders. Good leaders are conciliatory and understanding; great leaders are insistent and uncompromising. Good leaders put others first; great leaders put their vision first. Good leaders usually make others want to follow them; great leaders, on the other hand, usually make people want to be a part of the great thing they’re trying to achieve.

So does that mean it’s impossible to be both a good leader as well as a great one? Not at all. Business books are filled with examples of people who have managed to be both – Herb Kelleher at Southwest, Horst Schulze at Ritz-Carlton – but those books tend to focus primarily on the qualities that have made those people good rather than great. Plenty of books will tell you about Kelleher’s sense of humor and intense focus on getting to know Southwest’s employees, but comparatively few talk about his nearly psychotic devotion to the establishment and expansion of Southwest.

The point is, if you want to be a good leader and a great one, you need to recognize that they require different skill sets. Having an uncompromising vision for the future doesn’t mean that you can’t afford to listen to others. Unfortunately, most of us act as though we have to choose one path or the other, which is why there aren’t as many good/great leaders as there should be.

What I’m trying to say is that if you pay careful attention, it really is possible to have your cake and eat it too. Which is great news, because I love me some cake.


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