There is plenty of literature out there on the subject of leadership. Walk into a bookstore or search online and you'll find countless books and articles that profile inspirational leaders like George Patton, Steve Jobs, or Jack Welch and share the techniques they used to motivate and challenge their people to tackle the impossible.
It's no surprise that aspiring leaders gobble up these stories of hard-charging heroics like candy because they want to evolve and to remake themselves in the mold of these heroes of battle and business.
But I would suggest taking a different path. To become a better leader, start by being yourself.
By definition, leaders are people who other people follow. That means that if you want to be a leader, you need to get other people to follow you. Steve Jobs was clearly a gifted orator who also seemingly had the ability to see around corners into the future. That's how he inspired people.
But what if you're not like Steve Jobs; does that mean you can't be a leader?
I think it's a mistake to assume that there is even such a thing as a "prototypical" leader. I don't think such a person exists. That's why people get into trouble when they begin trying to act and emulate someone they aren't.
Rather, as leaders, you have to learn to be yourself and work from your own comfort zone and position of strength. Put another way, you need to embrace the idea of being authentic. Otherwise, people will see right through you. Human beings have evolved over the millennia to recognize when someone is being insincere or inauthentic; when they're not being themselves. And we've learned to connect that with someone who is lying to us or who cannot be trusted--which is probably not the best foundation for a leader to be standing on.
And yet, too many people let their insecurities get in the way of becoming good leaders. They worry about looking vulnerable or measuring up to someone else's ideal rather than on actually connecting with the people they want to follow them. And the answer to doing that is literally right in front of them: they just need to be themselves.
Take me as an example. I have always been somewhat academic and geeky. I have long found myself drawn to technology and numbers, but I certainly haven't dreamed up anything as earth shattering as the iPhone. So why would anyone follow me?
What I realized early on in my days at Delta, which I joined in the wake of 9/11 to help the company emerge from its bankruptcy, was that people appreciated how open and approachable I was. I always tried to make time to explain what was going on and to give people across the organization context for why we were doing what we were doing. And you can't believe how much people appreciated that. It was like the more I opened up to them, and apologized for what we were going through, the more they respected me. That was truly an eye-opening lesson for me.
People also tend to describe me as "down to earth," which I take as a real compliment. Part of the reason they think this is because I am willing to admit I don't have all the answers all of the time and that I--gasp!--also make mistakes. I'm willing to admit that I'm vulnerable, but I'm also committed to fixing what needs to be fixed and changing course if needed.
If all of that sounds contrary to some of the leadership myths we've been teaching for decades, where we expect our leaders to be flawless and in total control, you're right. That's not me.
I'd like to think that I was chosen as CEO of Red Hat because my predecessor and Board of Directors recognized that I brought a set of leadership traits they wanted at the head of their organization: someone who was open, collaborative, and had a willingness to foster debate and engage people at every level of the company.
My point is that if you want to become a better leader, start by looking at your own strengths and weaknesses rather than trying to be someone you're not. Ask yourself questions like: Why will people follow you? What's your greatest strength? How do you inspire people and get them to engage in tackling the tasks you jointly have before you? How can you make more time to listen and connect with the people you want to follow you?
Then make time to reflect on the answers you come up with. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself--and the kind of leader you're destined to be.