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How to Inspire Greatness: Stop Leading

Take it from a former nuclear submarine commander, getting great things from your team doesn't mean giving the right orders.
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If you were playing charades at a party and picked 'leader' out of the hat to act out, you’d probably know just what to do. Straight back, proud bearing, lots of pointing and bold gesticulations. In short, you’d act a lot like a nuclear submarine commander from a cinema thriller.

But take it from an actual nuclear submarine commander -- at least a former one -- that’s not what real leadership is about. Not if you want to inspire greatness in your team, anyway (if you want to win a role in a Hollywood blockbuster as a macho commander, stop reading now.)

In a great and highly entertaining ten-minute talk Captain David Marquet, who used to be the top man aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine, tells the story of how he decided to flip his old ideas of leadership on their head. Giving orders, he realized, was making his crew into a bunch of yes men and creating a yawning gap between mission critical information and where decisions actually got made.

So what did he do instead? He vowed to never give another order again (except for the final one to launch a weapon) and replaced instructions with intent, giving the control of the ship to his men. How’d that work out? Phenomenally, it turns out. Just watch:

He is not the only one whose critiquing the stereotype of leaders as those who use their personal charisma and wisdom to take control and attract followers. Marquet insists that, instead, the type of people who inspire greatness "give control and create leaders." And, it turns out, many social scientists  agree according to a long, fascinating article that appeared recently in The Boston Globe.

Entitled "The myth of the visionary leader," the piece by Leon Neyfakh delves into recent research showing that "the kind of leaders we idolize may be the last people we really want in charge. The character traits that tend to convince us someone deserves power, these thinkers say, have remarkably little to do with how effective that person will be at actually running a city, or a company, or a nation."

So while we may long for Russell Crowe in epaulettes, what we need are more workaday virtues like adaptability and the ability to build consensus. That’s useful to consider if you’re a board member picking a CEO, but it’s also a good thing for small business leaders to bear in mind -- being a leader and looking like one are two very different things.

Are you guilty of confusing acting like a leader with inspiring greatness? 

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Oct 28, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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