What is a leader? The simplest and perhaps most literal definition is “someone with followers.” But the presence of followers alone doesn’t signify that you’re any good at the act of leadership. History is littered with men and women who blithely led others straight into disaster.
Great leaders do three things that set them apart.
First of all, they start with a growth mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. This is far more than a simple positive attitude. Positive thinking alone can lend situations an undeserved—even dangerous—rosy cast, verging into denial. Growth mindset, which holds that improvement is made possible through honest self-assessment and hard work, encourages people to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.
Dave Guy, who plays trumpet alongside The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on the Tonight Show, is one of the foremost trumpeters alive. Early in his career, he made it his goal to learn how to play in as many different genres as he could—blues, jazz, soul, funk. As a young guy coming chiefly from the hip-hop scene, this meant putting himself in some uncomfortable situations, playing far out of his comfort zone. Yet this growth mindset allowed him to assimilate a vast array of styles, giving him an impressive palette of sounds and catapulting him into the top tier of trumpeting.
Great leaders also follow a strategy. The best-selling novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Irving says in the introduction to his book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, that his habit is to write the last sentence of a new project first. Neuroscientists might call this an example of scaffolding—a problem-solving technique which begins by identifying the goal and then filling in the gaps along the way, always keeping one’s eyes on the prize. (And a growth mindset strategist will be careful to check any plan for familiar flaws, building on their previous lessons learned.)
Of course, even the most brilliant strategy is just so much scrap paper unless it can be put into practice. The third element of great leadership is implementation. Every project requires changing current habits to accommodate the new idea, and that often requires an element of sacrifice. Sometimes this is a minor issue; frequently, it is not. Much like Newton’s Law, which states that a body at rest will tend to stay at rest, humans are designed to conserve energy. This default to stasis means we are far more likely to cling to old habits, even if innovation would make our lives better. A good leader is willing to shepherd a key idea through the entire process, devoting time and resources to ensure that everyone fully understands the new system.
Great leadership is not just about having people behind you; it’s about where you’re headed and how you intend to get there. Something our current presidential candidates might want to keep in mind…