Most people think to become a leader, you just get promoted or start a venture until you have a team below you: the bigger the team, the more people reporting to you, the more of a leader you are.

That's not leading, that's authority. They aren't necessarily following, they might just need the money your authority controls.

A picture of leadership

Consider Nelson Mandela, an extreme case of effective leadership. In prison, he had no authority, yet negotiated with two Presidents of his country (eventually to get their jobs).

Meanwhile, the Presidents of South Africa had great authority (and the military, for that matter), yet they had to defend themselves against the world.

Mandela's 70th birthday tribute attracted 200 million people. Who was leading whom?

A picture of anti-leadership

At the other extreme, consider Enron's "leaders." They had full authority over their company. Beyond that, they had deep connections to the White House and Capital Hill.

When put on trial, everyone scattered and pointed fingers. Enron's "leaders" engendered no loyalty because they didn't lead. They just made money in a climate they created where everyone was after themselves.

You could say they broke the law, but so did Mandela, as did Gandhi, King, and many other great leaders. Muhammad Ali had to defend himself against the law to the Supreme Court.

We love these great leaders for their problems with the law. There is a reason why.

Business today is no different. Uber, AirBnb, and their peers have no shortage of legal problems--and no shortage of supporters. Elon Musk and Tesla is fighting laws enforcing dealer monopolies to sell cars directly to consumers and we root for them to win.

Why we despise Enron's "leadership" and love Mandela's

If you have any success, especially in business, you will attract people. Loyalty to them will motivate loyalty from them.

But what do you actually do?

You have to support your potential followers for what they value, not necessarily what you do. As I've written before, Martin Luther King didn't get people to do what he wanted them to do, he got them to do what they wanted to do.

To know what they value and care about, you have to ask and deliver that.

But even asking isn't enough because sharing passions makes us vulnerable. For people to share their vulnerabilities, you have to make them feel comfortable sharing them.

Exercising authority threatens people--the opposite making them feel comfortable. Wield it with caution since it undermines your leadership. It leads people to work against you. I guess you could call that leadership, but it achieves the opposite of your goals.

What works at the root of leadership

At the root of effective leadership is

  1. Create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their passions and vulnerabilities
  2. Prompt them to share theirs and connect them to the team project
  3. Support them for their passion

Even "tough" leaders like Vince Lombardi did so, like when he said his Green Bay Packers "didn't do it for individual glory, they did it because they loved one another." For George Patton to say "Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom" tells the world he's hit the bottom, so you can too.

The closest name for this skill is empathy and support. These are skills you can learn.

They happen to be what make any relationship stronger and more durable, in business or anywhere else in life.

Published on: Sep 15, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.