An old colleague and leadership expert used to relate a little parable about the great British prime ministers, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
It was said that, after dinner with Gladstone, you’d go home shaking your head, thinking, “Wow, that Gladstone is just the wittiest, the most intelligent, the most charming person around.”
But after dinner with Disraeli, you’d go home shaking your head, thinking, “Wow, I am just the wittiest, the most intelligent, the most charming person around.”
We all want to be around people like Disraeli. Gladstone was certainly an impressive man who shined brightly before others. But Disraeli had the ability to help others shine, to find what was impressive in them and draw it to the surface. The story may be apocryphal or exaggerated, but it speaks deeply to the kind of leaders that most people respond to.
Why don’t we have more of that “help others to shine ” leadership in our organizations and our society? Because most wannabe leaders figure that leadership is about being the person in the spotlight. If they do finally earn that spotlight, it’s hard for them to leave it or even share it.
It takes maturity and humility and wisdom to grasp that oftentimes the best thing you can do with that spotlight is to put it on those around you, so that they blossom in ways they didn’t realize were possible … and so that your organization can benefit fully from their fully developed talents.
Remember the power of collective wisdom. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” as the Japanese proverb goes. It’s been demonstrated by social scientists that multiple viewpoints and shared perspectives are crucial to solving the more complex problems of organizational life. The person who’s too busy or too vain to appreciate what “the masses” have to say is robbing himself and his organisation of invaluable wisdom. But the leader who knows that gems of wisdom are present in others will always be on the lookout for those gems.
Make learning more important to your career than teaching. Too often the bright but arrogant leader eventually becomes a fool and a failure. Such a leader always supposes that he or she has something to teach others. But the bright and reasonably humble leader realizes he or she has something to learn from others, no matter their station–and is eager to test ideas on them and to gain insight from their distinct, unique experiences.
Sense the heroic in others—even the so-called “little people.” The wise leader senses that there’s something noble and heroic in most anyone who sits across the table, and uses the time together to learn about that person’s personal battles and triumphs. Many of the greatest leaders and mentors are those who can become sincerely fascinated by most anyone.
Remember that people will admire you more if you admire them. This isn’t rocket science. When a smart or powerful person finds you to be intriguing, you’re far more loyal to them than if they simply condescended to give you a few moments of their time. And earning that sort of loyalty is important to the work of most long-term leaders. I wrote elsewhere about two leaders, one who was kind to the “little people,” and one who was brutal. Both went through rough patches, but the one who showed decency was able to ride out storms. And the other one washed out to sea as others quietly cheered.
The truth is that there are enough impressive and distinguished stuffed-shirts (or Gladstones) in the world. Most people whom you know aren’t cheering for you to become another one of them. But they are pulling for you to become that rare leader who can help others to shine.