Elon Musk isn't popular because he loves electric cars. He's popular because we love electric cars, and their benefits relative to gas-powered cars.

People didn't follow Martin Luther King because he wanted equality and freedom. They followed him because they wanted equality and freedom.

Dwight Eisenhower didn't enjoy leading the D-Day invasion. The soldiers feared Hitler and wanted to protect themselves and their families. Eisenhower's description of leadership is one of the most meaningful I've seen:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Too many people take away from movies like Braveheart that leadership means putting blue paint on your face and going in front of everyone to get glory. They watch Wolf of Wall Street and think sales is about charisma, cleverness, and eloquence when handed a pen and told "sell me this pen."

I just finished teaching a block week of an entrepreneurship class, meaning a full fourteen-week university course in five days, 9-5. The short time frame puts into stark contrast students' incoming essays versus their closing essays about themselves and entrepreneurship.

Their opening essays overwhelmingly are about themselves, their interests, and what they can get from the course. Here is a paragraph from a typical essay before the course:

I hope this class will not only be engaging but also will challenge me and allow me to become someone who has more of a business mindset. Additionally, I want to have a better appreciation for entrepreneurs and their business models. In this class, I want to learn what other people have tried in their entrepreneurial endeavors, what has worked for them, and what has failed. By gaining a better understanding of how successful entrepreneurs achieved their success, I will be better equipped to succeed in my own future endeavors. I also hope to use my peers as a resource. My classmates are future business leaders, yet they are in the same position in their career as I am.

Their closing essays are about customers, needs, and solutions. They recognize that being your own boss means everyone else is your boss, at least your investors, customers, and employees.

Here is the same student's closing essay:

This class has pushed me to sit down with a stranger in Washington Square Park and ask them about their problems. I spent more time on phone calls than I would've ever imagined for one or two pieces of advice. I have listened to random people I meet tell me they would never be interested in my product. I have listened to random people I meet ask me what my product is called so they can buy it. I have contacted people I would have never imagined (everyone from homeless people collecting plastic bottles, to big executives thousands of miles away). And I have spent hours ranting to my parents about bank loans and calling up cousins to ask about marketing. This is nothing like the notes I thought I would be taking.

Notice a difference?

Did she speak to strangers, random people, and homeless people to show off? Or can you tell she had to overcome internal resistance to learn about others to help serve them?

It just so happens that the side-effect of talking to them also led her to talk to big executives thousands of miles away, even as a young student. Do you think her outward focus makes her more or less likely to succeed as an entrepreneur?

Ironically, learning how to learn about her customers will teach her more about other successful entrepreneurs than learning about the entrepreneurs themselves.

The part of the course that's about yourself is developing the personal skills of entrepreneurship: finding unmet needs, refining solutions, developing operating models, learning to listen to potential customers, and so on.

The point of those skills? To serve your customers by knowing and addressing their needs. Same with your investors and employees. If any greatness emerges for you, it's through serving those needs better than anyone else.

Braveheart didn't go into battle in front for glory. Going in front made him the bigger target so others could follow more safely--not for his glory but for their protection.

My takeaway from Braveheart isn't to peacock. It's to learn people's needs so I can serve them better.

My takeaway from The Wolf of Wall Street is not to learn about pens, nor to learn about partying. It's to learn how to find out why people need something if I want to sell it to them.

My takeaway from Eisenhower isn't to amass more authority or wish for a big problem. It's to learn about people so I can understand their wants and needs, which is what I call empathy--one of the most effective skills to influence others, by serving their needs.

Published on: Aug 8, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.