Erika Andersen is a Forbes blogger, a facilitator, consultant, coach, and the founding partner of Proteus International. She’s also the author of three books: Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. I follow Erika on Twitter and regularly read and share her blog posts. In all of her writing, she offers advice gleaned from her thirty years of working with executives.
I thoroughly enjoyed her most recent book, Leading So People Will Follow and wanted to share this great resource with you.
Erika, this is your third book and really they are related. For people who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us about each of the books.
Thanks for asking! The three books each have a strong connection to one of our three practice areas at Proteus, the business I founded in 1990. The first book, Growing Great Employees, is a kind of Boy Scout Handbook for people managers. It’s a very skill-based, practical approach to the whole realm of managing and developing employees: why it’s important and how to do it well. That book is most connected to the management and leadership training part of our client offer, which we call Building Skills and Knowledge.
The second book, Being Strategic, is most closely connected to our Clarifying Vision and Strategy practice area, where we focus on helping organizations clarify the future they want to create – and then achieve their vision. That book teaches our model and the associated mental skills for thinking and acting more strategically – in any part of your life.
This new book, Leading So People Will Follow, is connected to our Developing Leaders practice area, where we focus on coaching individual leaders and teams of leaders to get ready and stay ready to succeed into the future.
In your latest book, stories and folklore play a big part. I love that because children’s books are filled with powerful leadership lessons. Why did you choose to use fairy tales and stories to get your points across?
6 Traits of a Leader
Stories have played a unique role in the history of humanity: Until a few hundred years ago, most people couldn’t read or write, and stories were the easiest and most effective way to pass on important knowledge. Stories are memorable and replicable – much more so than a mere recitation of facts. I think of stories as carriers of the cultural DNA of pre-literate societies.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was first starting to think about leadership and how we choose who to follow, my kids were small, and I was reading stories to them every night with the understanding that, throughout history, stories contained key messages.
I began to notice that many of these tales were about someone overcoming adversity to become a worthy leader. In fact, the more I read, a pattern began to emerge: a young hero-in-the-making, generally the youngest and least impressive of three brothers, who makes his way through a very specific and predictable series of trials – and in the process develops or reveals a core set of personal attributes that allow him to save the princess and become the wise and just ruler by the end of the tale.
As I read to my kids, I noticed that this pattern, of attributes essential to becoming a leader, was remarkably consistent across time and culture. It seemed to me that I had stumbled upon an archetype: that these stories were saying, in effect, “Don’t accept someone as a leader unless he or she demonstrates these characteristics.”
In this book, you talk about a meeting that struck you where the CEO was speaking, and you observed how the meeting attendees would listen, but then glance at the CFO to see his reaction. Though the CEO had the title, the CFO was the real leader. Of course, if it happened the other way, you’d expect it (if the attendees subtly glanced at the person with the highest position.) That observation was important to this book. Tell us why.
That experience, and others like it that I was having around that time, indicated to me that people were choosing their leaders based on something other than title and position power. And that was fascinating to me. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Until fairly recently, our choice of leader was a life-and-death decision. With a poor leader, you were much more likely to starve to death or be overrun by enemies or fall prey to lawlessness within your own tribe. And even when leaders were chosen for us (the oldest son of the lord, for instance), if that person didn’t lead well, he was likely to be replaced quickly and brutally.
Given all that, it seemed fair to assume that the ability to tell good leaders from bad is a group survival mechanism, wired into all of us. We may not always attend to that wired-in capability; we may get fooled by good PR or our own wishful thinking…but not for long. Again and again, I would see people be tentative in following certain leaders and wholehearted in following others. And with remarkable consistency, it came down to whether or not they were seeing the attributes that show up in these “leader tales” – and that I describe in Leading So People Will Follow.
The six attributes I extracted from these “leader tales” are Far-sighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous and Trustworthy.
Far-sighted leaders are those who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future they and their followers can achieve together and who model and move toward the vision daily. Passionate leaders remain committed to that vision, to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge – and at the same time, they’re open to input and new ideas. Courageous leaders make difficult decisions with limited information, even when that’s uncomfortable for them – and they take full responsibility for those decisions.
Wise leaders reflect on their experience, learn from it, and think deeply about how to incorporate their understanding going forward in making the right choices. Generous leaders share what they have – knowledge, power, authority, and resources – and perhaps most important, belief in our capability and our good intentions. Trustworthy leaders can be relied upon to keep their word and deliver on their promises – to do what they say they will do.
They do seem to be equally important. Over the past year, as we created and validated our multi-rater assessment based on these six attributes, our validator discovered that the data showed that each of the six attributes was “necessary but not sufficient” for followability. In other words, you need to be at least pretty good at all of these to be a fully followable leader.
We can’t go through all of them in detail, but let’s pick one. Trustworthy. How does a leader demonstrate trustworthiness?
For each of the six attributes, we’ve developed five simple behavioral indicators – simple sentences that say, “Here’s what it looks like.” We want readers of the book and participants in our learning programs to be able to see clearly whether or not they’re demonstrating a particular trait – and how to develop it. The five indicators for Trustworthy are: Tell the truth as they understand it. Do what they say they will do. Keep confidences. Speak and act for the greater good. And Are capable and get results. If someone consistently behaves in these ways, we experience him or her as deeply trustworthy.
With the release of Peter Jackson’s new movie, The Hobbit, I just have to go back to fairy tales and stories. What’s the connection between wizards, generosity and leadership?
I’m excited about The Hobbit, as well, though I haven’t seen it yet (we just re-watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy in preparation).
One of the things I discovered in gathering these ‘leader tales’: The leader-in-training always has help. Both Bilbo and Frodo relied on Gandalf for knowledge and skills they lacked. And in both cases their pure intentions and generosity toward others inspired the wizard’s support. This dynamic exists in nearly every good leader tale.
The translation into modern-day leadership: If you are generous as a leader, “wizards” – people who have knowledge, skill or power that you need in order to succeed – will come to your aid. I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times – and it has certainly been true in my own life as a leader.
You talk about the importance for a leader to show both the “depth of commitment” and still be “permeable.” That’s a difficult balancing act for a leader. Stay committed and also changeable at the same time. It seems that someone would be open to criticism for changing a decision, and yet also for staying the course. Elaborate on this and explain how to strike that balance.
You’re describing what I’ve discovered is true passion in a leader. I would characterize it as being deeply committed yet open – that’s different from being changeable. In my mind, changeable implies superficiality or whimsy. Being open means that even though you believe strongly in something, you’re not dogmatic or doctrinaire; you will listen deeply to opposing points of view and will change your position if there’s critical new information, or if someone makes a truly compelling case for change. In my experience, leaders who are able to strike that balance take time and thought to discover and develop their most deeply-held values and positions – the things they’re most passionate about – and at the same time, they remain great listeners.
You’ve observed many different types of people. What’s the biggest impediment you have witnessed for someone to become a leader others truly want to follow?
Becoming a worthy leader is like developing any other capability: It requires honest self-reflection, real openness to learning (which includes an openness to being wrong and to not knowing), and a willingness to change your behavior. These things sound simple – but require discipline, consistency and humility. In other words, people are generally their own biggest impediment. The good news is, though, we can use the three approaches I’ve mentioned to get out of our own way and be our own greatest supporters – and there are very few other real impediments.