The new transformers movie is out. And no matter what you think of those movies, Optimus Prime is the leader you want. In this year’s world cup, coach Louis van Gaal was also a leader by breaking tradition with his rule that player’s wives can’t be a part of the tournament. The idea was that you have to look at the football players as holistic human being in order to get the best out of them, and this includes their families. In that sense, Louis was a pioneer and a leader, who in turn created great leaders on the field.
This word holistic, is actually quite a beautiful idea (Oxford dictionary about holistic: Characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole).
One of the coolest sentences I’ve heard about leadership came from Marcello Palazzio: “Leadership is one to one.” Leaders need to connect with other people, and for this it is necessary that they are a balanced being, who can deal with failures, take on different perspectives, and understand people no matter where they are from. Optimus even understands a different species, even in times when they are hating him.
It makes sense that a holistic being is better equipped to deal with the diversity of people, but such a balanced person is also better equipped to tackle society’s grand challenges. After all, grand challenges don’t have a single solution but require a holistic approach. A leader needs to be able to work across sectors. Leaders are the ones who oversee the entire process and who cannot allow themselves to adopt a narrow-minded vision.
I discussed the concepts of holistic being and an holistic approach because I think these are fundamental pieces for building a strong leader. Yet, these two ideas can and should be applied to every person and organization as far as possible. So what sets leaders apart from the rest?
One of the key characteristics that define a leader is the courage to take a leap of faith. It is the courage needed to make the first step. After all, leaders are leading the way.
Another feature of a good leader is the ability to create a culture and work environment that gives everyone meaningful work. Meaningful work seems to be a key issue, because while our business world has usually integrated a certain level of know-how, it is the know-why that is often absent. Not everyone has the “luxury” of such a clear know-why like Optimus, who knew he had no other choice than to save the world.
I already mentioned Marcello Palazzio, but he said something else about leadership I want to share: “Half the work is showing up.” While this seems like an overly simple idea, it addresses the problem that leaders often don’t care enough about their own followers. If these people are not worthy of attention, how can they ever feel part of a culture that gives them meaningful work? By simply ‘showing up’, leaders do not shy away from their responsibilities. They show up to the work floor to engage with their followers, and they show up in situations where the organization (or planet) is under attack. A leader has to be visible, in the literal and figural sense, because otherwise the people have no one to follow and get lost in the woods.
This ‘showing up’ idea strikes a point that I believe to be crucial in leadership: Listening. Without listening to a person’s needs, troubles, and wishes, it is impossible to empower them to be a holistic being. Without listening to the circumstances and needs of an organization, it is impossible to take on a truly holistic approach. Without listening to the context and existent culture, it is impossible to create an empowering culture. Without listening, a leader cannot lead but only become an egocentric and ambitious person, more like Megatron.
When we talk about leadership we often bring up people like Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy, or Martin Luther King. However, I believe that we often forget one very important point. Whenever we talk about such leadership, we equal such leadership to becoming a celebrated hero. While that is certainly possible, I believe that in many cases of a truly meaningful life and heroic leadership, those leaders do not get the credit they deserve and face oblivion rather than celebrity. Maybe that is the most admirable and most difficult feature of a leader, to live a meaningful life against the flow, even when you get nothing in return.
This is an adapted version of a school essay and so it includes ideas from Rob van Tulder, Marcello Palazzio, Fred van Beuningen, and Muriel Arts.