Who do you admire?

I was asked on Friday “which leader to you admire the most?”.

Responses to this question generally can often include Churchill, Christ, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandella and more recently, Barak Obama. What is it about these people what we can admire, and what can we take from them for our own leadership journey?

Sometimes, and I admit to enjoying these moments, we hear stories of a very personal nature where someone describes a tireless worker, sometimes in a low-paid or voluntary position who led others to achieve great things, but never really got noticed. It’s always my hope that the Queens honours find these people for some recognition.

I confess to being a bit of a leader-resister. I’m low in wanted control – I don’t have any big desire to be “led” by someone, especially because others (or worse still the person involved!) might think that they are somehow great or impressive at what they do. So when someone tells me that for example, Barak Obama is a good leader, I think why? Would I be led by him? If so why?

So what is it about Barak Obama that people admire, and what can we learn? We hear he has vision. We hear he is natural. And he has a purpose. I want to focus on the “natural” part for a moment and reflect on what that’s about. Natural can be defined as “Springing from true sentiment; not artificial or exaggerated”. How is it then that Obama says things that “spring from true sentiment” as compared to something that is just said as words.

At our core are our mental models which shape our belief systems. They are in part generalisations about the world and for many people, remain an undiscovered source of what we do and why. Great leaders know their core, they know their mental models and stand firmly on the values and behaviours that come from them. Those values are them. So when you hear them speak, it appears natural, because, well, it is! And when you hear political spin, you know it, because it comes from somewhere else, usually a piece of paper, something with no values.

But I still like to ask: what can this mean for all of us? Only a tiny percentage of us will lead as these people have done. Are there places closer to our world where we can look for practical examples of authentic leadership? People we might know. My experience is yes. It might be your boss or your organisation’s leader. But it might also be someone in a sports team, your voluntary group, your own home or your workplace. People who others follow, not because of their position, but because of their authenticity, their (usually understated) vision and their desire to help all of us achieve things for ourselves. I know a few of these people and I’d love to hear about some you know so we can learn from them.

What really are the characteristics of authentic leaders, especially those we know close up?

By the way, my answer was Michael, an auto-electrician. I’ll talk about him another day soon.

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