Real Leadership

by Randy Gage

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A non-profit organization I’m a member of recently launched a new initiative. They faced some initial resistance and immediately crumpled like a cheap suit. I guess they thought the changes they were rolling out would receive instant, unanimous and reassuring approval from the entire membership. But that’s not how it works in the real world…

You can’t do anything meaningful without scaring some and offending others. In fact, if you’re not facing any criticism — even attracting a few haters — you can be sure you’re not doing something amazing. Leadership isn’t putting out popular proposals to universal acclaim; it is being a critical thinker, creating a vision for the future, thinking long-term and doing the right thing, even when it is not popular. Leaders lead.

Although I’m not taking any consulting contracts while on sabbatical, I’m still performing my strategic advisor service to a few select CEOs and company boards. One of my clients recently took over a 40-year-old organization that hasn’t been relevant in a long time.  He prides himself on being a consensus builder, so he’s frantically working to build consensus. So the advice I gave that shocked him: I told him the organization he inherited didn’t need a consensus builder. They need someone to burn the f***ing barn down.
Don’t get me wrong — Consensus is good. Most of the time. But there are other times when consensus is simply a code word for mediocrity.

Mediocrity can be managed.  Excellence must be led.
Real leaders often ruffle feathers, rattle molars and just generally make people uncomfortable. Because if they didn’t need you to do those things, they wouldn’t need a leader in the first place.

Real leadership is scary — for the leader and those being led.
It’s scary because there is something at stake: Greatness. People look to leaders because they want someone who challenges them to have a higher vision and strive to accomplish more, whether it’s for themselves or a noble purpose. If the thing you endeavor to do doesn’t hurt a little, involve risk or scare you. it’s probably not a goal worthy of you.
Real leadership has nothing to do with finding your “leadership style.” That’s the feel-good pabulum you read in leadership bestsellers written by people who have never actually led anything.

The question is not what leadership style suits your personality – but what leadership style the people you are leading need.
Sometimes that’s being a consensus builder. Sometimes it means reengaging past leaders, making everyone feel safe and keeping people focused.
But more often than not, leadership means being the one to give the wake up call, letting people know the current situation is no longer acceptable and challenging them to become more. When an organization is in those straights, it doesn’t need consensus builders. It needs leaders to lead.

Greatness threatens people. Which is why you need to be great. So who are you leading? And what do they need from you?


randypic Randy Gage is the author of nine books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Risky Is the New Safe.” He has spoken to more than 2 million people across more than 50 countries. In 2013, Randy was inducted into the Speakers Hall of Fame. He was born in Wisconsin on April 6, 1959. Like Randy on Facebook, connect on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @Randy_Gage.