Tom Peters, a best-selling author on business management and executive leadership, famously said ‘True leaders don’t create followers, they create leaders.’ This bold claim, that appears to be self-evident, is the basis for much modern leadership thinking.
You are familiar with the refrains: ‘You must create a culture of leadership,’ … ‘4 ways to create leaders, not followers’ … ‘All employees are expected to think and act like leaders.’ On the surface, this seems both appropriate and sensible. However this thinking contains a hidden, but powerful, message: leaders are the only people who matter, as a leader, you must ‘create’ more leaders, and if you are a follower, then you need to become a leader.
This all too common approach regards the other person not as ‘someone’ but as ‘something: a ‘thing’ which you create and get satisfaction from having created. How does that feel to you? While well-intentioned, I have a moral problem with a view that one person can have such control over another.
Not only does this sort of mentality rob that person of their dignity, but it also deprives them of initiative and personal responsibility for their own growth and learning. It puts the leader in the position of both ‘telling’ and ‘letting’. The leader tells people what to do, and lets them do it. It instrumentalises people and dissolves the individual, reducing them to a means to an end. Their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and what they want from their own life are secondary.
Being a CEO is not the imposition of one’s self-beliefs onto others, but creating the environment for others to grow and flourish.
The reality is not everyone wants to be a leader. Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has the desire or disposition, the capability or commitment. And that’s perfectly ok. If you look around you will find a far greater number of followers than leaders – effective organisations need both. Good leaders serve followers in order that they may flourish.
Humanity’s greatest achievements involve a collaborative effort between both leaders and followers. And the truly great achievements, often unknown to many of us, involve leaders and followers united around a common purpose beyond themselves, which serves the greater good.
Believing the CEO is a ‘leader creating machine’ puts an awful burden on you as the CEO. You have not failed in your role because you did not ‘create’ a leader. Just as everyone is unique in the role that they play in this world, similarly everyone is unique in the gifts, talents, and desires they bring to a role. If they show leadership capability, then do all in your power to liberate that. And since you have other leaders reporting to you, then yes, you do have a responsibility to help them lift their leadership capability.
However, is the job of a CEO to create leaders? In short, the answer is no. The job of a CEO is to create an environment where people can choose their path and flourish on their own individual journey. A place where they feel supported and not pushed.
Does that threaten the organisation? Yes, it does, because it renders control in the hands of the followers, not the leaders. However, followers in such an environment quickly work out whether they are in the right place. And if they are they will serve the purpose with maximum effort, because of how you serve them, who they become, and the impact they have on the greater good.
The ability to create a safe and secure environment for individuals to choose their own path, and effectively manage the inherent tension between that and the purpose of the business, is one of the greatest achievements for a CEO.
Don’t ‘create’ leaders – create an environment in which leaders can emerge. Encourage the people within your organisation to own their decisions and be accountable for them. Give them the freedom to learn, grow and act. Show them true leadership by serving your people.
Great leaders listen more than they speak. They listen to understand and not to answer.
Doing the right thing as a leader – what might be called moral leadership – goes a long way toward creating the environment in which people can flourish. Just as the compass on a ship points to magnetic north, enabling the navigator to chart a course with confidence, so too our moral compass needs to be grounded in some reality against which it can be measured or checked.