Certain companies feel magical. Though the spells they cast may be unique, each emits an aura that delights customers, attracts top talent, and impels the culture to pay attention. Apple has its sleek, innovative designs. Disney trades in playfulness and starry-eyed imagination. And Starbucks pairs corporate responsibility with the world’s drug of choice.
Such allure is more than marketing sleight of hand. True magic happens within these organizations, and that magic comes from leaders who maintain an unshakable devotion to their “why” and can bring it to life for their people.
While not every company can be the next Apple or Disney, any leader can cast a sense of purpose and enchantment. It doesn’t even require an incantation. It starts simply with following these four laws, courtesy of leadership consultant and author Simon Sinek.
Performance does not equal leadership.
- There’s no correlation between individual ability and leadership ability. Leaders get the best out of their people. They may not be the best at what they do.
- High performers whom people don’t trust make for toxic leaders.
- Avoid promoting people based on performance alone. Ask: Do people trust this person? How are their social skills?
There’s no correlation between leadership and performance because different trades require different skill sets.
The leadership trade demands social skills. Leaders must be able to communicate the mission and how individual efforts support it. They need to build relationships of trust and foster cultures where a diverse array of minds and talents can thrive. They must teach, delegate, make decisions, and hold themselves accountable for the outcomes.
A performer’s trade requires, well, performance skills—whatever those may be in their particular role. Though such expertise is hardwon, it doesn’t necessarily transfer into leadership-handy soft skills.
Let’s return to baseball. Every pitcher can throw a curveball, but that doesn’t make every pitcher a curveball teacher. Although their minds and bodies have long intuited the technique as second nature, they may lack the communication experience necessary to break down that technique into the digestible, easy-to-follow steps. Without that skill—and many others—their coaching career won’t last the season.
There’s another wrinkle to Sinek’s law: Sublime leadership in one culture doesn’t guarantee serviceable leadership in another. Leaders must not only master soft skills; they need to connect those skills to the demands of culture and historical context.
Consider the example of William Seawell. A Brigadier General during World War II, he led the 401st Bombardment Group, earned many prestigious distinctions, and later served as the commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy. Yet, it was under his tenure as the chief executive that Pan Am’s troubled 70s flight signaled mayday. Unable to course correct, Pan Am would ultimately crash into economic tarmac in 1991.
Leadership has nothing to do with rank.
- What makes someone a leader is not formal authority. What makes someone a leader is choosing to look after others.
- Remember: leadership comes with risk. Standing up for your people can cost you your job.
- Leadership also comes with incredible rewards. Help your people become better versions of themselves.
Sporting a “senior” or “vice” in a title adds a lovely shine to any LinkedIn profile, but titles don’t make someone a leader any more than previous performance. That’s because leadership is a trade, not a rank.
Among their many in-demand soft skills, leaders must also be supportive. They should back their teammates’ efforts and provide whatever resources they can to help them succeed. They should mitigate what external complications they can and stand up for their people when internal shifts threaten them. And they should take on that responsibility daily and consistently.
Notice, however, that none of these capabilities require one to sit atop the org chart. They can come from anyone, in any position, who cares about their coworkers, shoulders the responsibility, and proclaims, “I’ve gotcha!” In doing so, leaders provide what Sinek calls a “circle of safety,” a space in which others can thrive and improve.
You must visit the frontlines.
- We can run a company, but we can’t lead a company. We can only lead people.
- Get out from behind your desk and practice eyeball leadership. In a digital world, try to get to know people in person. Learn their names and faces.
To cultivate a sense of trust, leaders need to build relationships, and they can’t do that without face-to-face interaction. If people only know their leaders from the occasional tweet or email, then they’ll put more trust in their favorite late-night host than their executive team—and enjoy more laughs as a bonus.
As Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, writes: “Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
The premier eyeball leader is none other than Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco. He kept his feet on the ground by regularly visiting stores to experience them as his customers and employees did. Legend says that he visited up to 12 Costco stores a day—though this turns out to be a tall tale, one encouraged by Sinegal himself. He did visit 12 stores a day but only on occasion.
You can’t lead with Twitter.
- Social media is a powerful tool for spreading our message and scaling our business. But it doesn’t replace leadership.
- Don’t lead with a platform. A platform is marketing. Lead with your humanity.
As suggested by law three, leaders can’t lead from behind a screen. Unfortunately, social media’s veneer of human interaction can trick leaders into feeling more connected with their people than they are.
As Tristan Harris, co-director of Time Well Spent, told Big Think in an interview, these platforms manipulate our social brains by triggering its reward mechanisms through social approval. But likes, retweets, or wild-eyed emojis aren’t human connections. They are, at best, a check on a to-do list, a memo from an employee to a leader saying, “Yes, I read this. Please update your expectations accordingly.”
As Sinek says, these are powerful tools, but like any tool, they need to be used properly and with care. Sinek recommends using them for marketing, scaling the business, and spreading a message. We would add what Cal Newport, author and associate professor of computer science, calls “conversation-centric communication.”
As he explains it in his book Digital Minimalism: “In this philosophy, [online] connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.”
Under Sinek and Newport’s model, Twitter becomes a tool to schedule moments of true leadership and not a substitute for that leadership.
Create magic inside your organization with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, Simon Sinek joins more than 350 experts to teach career development and lifelong learning skills. Sinek’s latest expert class, “The Humanity of Leadership,” contains lessons in:
- The Anthropological Reason We Have Leaders
- Driving Your Organization from “Why”
- Driving Your Personal Success from “Why”
- Helping Teams Thrive Within a Circle of Safety
- Four Laws for Creating Magic Inside Your Organization
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