Most people think that leaders are the people who are out in front, the most visible and the loudest.
The most effective leaders I know, though, are the ones who are nearly invisible. They don’t have to be present to have a strong presence. They don’t need or want center stage. They may send subtle cues and coordinate from behind-the-scenes. But then they get out of the way and let others be at the forefront.
A famous quote says, “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must first turn his back on the crowd.” The man that quote is attributed to, James Crook, may be one of these powerful leaders who doesn’t need the spotlight – aside from attribution for this quote, he’s relatively unknown. But, clearly, he understood what it means to lead.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli offers another quote that suggests leadership is something different from the stereotypical front-and-center position. He says, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”
Here’s what I like about the perspectives offered by Crook and Disraeli. They are both humble perspectives. All too often (in movies, sports, politics and business), we are presented with so-called leaders who are vain and showy. We are expected to adore and emulate them. There are certain qualities that we think leaders are supposed to have – charisma, strong public speaking skills, a sense of humor, physical beauty. Why? Because those charms are supposed to attract followers.
It’s true that there have been leaders who possessed these characteristics and amassed many followers. They loved to draw crowds. Some have used their position in the spotlight for good. Some have not. Cult leaders, dictators, narcissists and con artists throughout history have relied on their charms to attract a crowd for their own ego gratification and to further their own agendas. Leaders who are remembered more favorably by history do something different.
Highly esteemed leaders don’t spend all their time on stage. They spend time listening to other people. They are open to hearing the ideas of people at all socioeconomic or workplace levels. They seek diverse opinions. They challenge what isn’t working. They aren’t so enamored with their own ideas that they tune out what others have to say.
I more respect the leaders I’ve know who are humble enough to continually learn and strong enough to stand alone when the crowd is not with them. They listen and learn and take in new information – not because they will be carried along by popular opinion but because they care enough to understand the perspectives of others. If they do not agree after listening to and considering others’ opinions, they take a stand on their own position. They don’t do it secretly, behind closed doors when they think no one is listening. They stand tall and proud outwardly. They don’t try to play both sides.
And, sometimes, they follow the people. In order to lead, it is essential that you also be able to follow. Following the people isn’t the same as being swayed by popular opinion and losing your own voice. Following is a deliberate choice. It is based in humility and the ability to say, “I may be wrong and they may be right.” But please don’t misunderstand. Following the people isn’t a choice that anyone should make every time. That’s not leadership either.
That’s why both quotes are included here. A leader needs to know when to lead, when to follow, and when to turn his or her back to the crowd. In order to have the discernment it takes to know when and how to do all three is what makes an extraordinary leader. That discernment comes from a strong moral compass, from openness and humility, and from an intent to truly serve the people being led.
This is true in all forms of leadership. As a parent, older sibling, friend, club leader, athletic coach, supervisor, spouse or community member, everyone is called to lead at times. When you are in a leadership role, remember that it’s not about the visibility or the authority. It’s not about our ability to wow the crowds. It’s what you do to learn and understand the people you lead, quietly and behind the scenes, that will really count.
Deb Calvert is a TLC Certified Master and expert on the evidence-based Five Exemplary Practices of Leaders. Book Deb today to speak at your leadership events, and subscribe to our blog for weekly articles on how to improve your leadership skills.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published February 2016 and has been recently updated.