Isaac Newton famously said that if he had seen far, it was “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Dramatic as that statement is, it’s a poor model for understanding leadership. Leaders don’t rise above everyone else. The best leaders achieve what they do by standing shoulder to shoulder with others. They never lead alone.
Take big, industry-wide leadership efforts, for instance. Audi, BMW, and Daimler have banded together to try to buy Nokia’s mapping service, called Here, as part of their shared goal of putting a self-driving car on the road. They’re competitors, of course, and if they succeed in their aim, none of the three will be able to claim to being the leader in self-driving cars. The achievement would be shared, the result of collaborative leadership, with the top minds at all three companies working together and relying on one another to do something great.
But the truth is that we do this every day. Unless you’re a one-person business, you work alongside somebody else. It’s hard to see yourself at the top of a pyramid if there’s someone else in the organization who’s more skilled than you at something, no matter what it is–tracking finances, designing products, maintaining IT infrastructure, managing the mailroom, you name it. In that important sense, at least, you’re all leaders in your given area. It’s by leading together that we succeed.
Leaders can sometimes stand in their own way, unable to single-handedly achieve the goals they’ve set their sights on, whether it’s in their organizations or the wider world. It’s not intentional, of course, but sometimes a lack of self-awareness is at play. It can be hard to see when we’re crowding out others’ voices or creating an environment where all types of talent can flourish.
Think of the approach some government leaders take to teaching. They want high-quality education, but the restrictions they place on teachers toward that end stifle creativity and productivity in the classroom, leading 40-50% of teachers to leave the profession in less than five years. No one policy is intentionally counterproductive, of course, but it seems likely that the issue stems in part from the leaders who set those policies failing to recognize what isn’t working at the top–where they themselves work.
Self-awareness isn’t something that you can achieve on your own. If you could see the flaws in how you work, you’d have addressed them already. That’s why we need input from others, however painful it may be. It lets us understand and refine our leadership styles, to identify and tackle our weaknesses. What’s more, no leader forges her leadership approach in a vacuum, but by listening to others, using their thoughts and ideas to improve.
Since our success as leaders depends so much on working with others, we need to make sure it’s a two-way street–not just that we support our teams but that they, too, are able and willing to support us. Otherwise we’ll be isolated and ineffective–lonely leaders struggling to get anything done.
We can start by meaningfully recognizing others’ contributions. This was one of the hallmarks of Dean Smith’s successful run as the basketball coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Players who scored were encouraged to point to the person who had passed to them, reminding everyone that getting the ball in the net had been a team effort. Giving everybody the public credit they deserved helped to propel the team’s success.
You do not lead alone, so don’t pretend you do. Let the people you work with know that they’re part of a bigger, more collaborative effort than any individual could make alone. Then let the world know it. Because by cooperating and listening, we can achieve so much more.