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Great Leaders Aren't Just Role Models

Managers, employees, customers, and other entrepreneurs need a lot more than inspiration.

Every year, I judge an award for high-achieving women. The nominations are always sensational, proof--if it were needed--that there is no female pipeline problem. The business world is full to bursting with brilliant, innovative, disciplined, driven high-achieving women.

Along with the other judges, I interview the shortlist and one critical question always is: What have you done to help other women?

Some candidates have no problem. They reel off initiatives they've introduced, networks they've built, cross-industry collaborations they've pioneered, and scores of women they've mentored. These women are winners.

But others are either stumped or come up with the answer: I've been a role model. In other words: I've been successful, so now others can just copy me.

These women aren't winners. Why? Because they have lost all sense of what it is like for those younger, less experienced, less well connected, confident, savvy than themselves. They do what all weak thinkers and bad leaders do: They generalize from their own experience. They think everyone is like them.

This is not just a female issue. All great leaders appreciate that their success is not just about them. It's about the wider world that helped, supported, and educated them, those individuals who tolerated their mistakes and showed them better solutions. Some of my best teachers--though they may not have seen themselves in this light--were the people who took the time and trouble to say to me: This is not good enough. Here's a better way.

Role models are inspiring and important. But if you really want to help someone, make an introduction, be a critical friend, offer up teaching and training and networks, and take aspirants seriously. And never forget the people who helped you and how they did it.

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Last updated: Jan 8, 2013

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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