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Lessons Learned

The Three Fundamental Traits Of The Most Influential Leaders

Real leaders pick the right problems to solve, not just find solutions to the wrongly prioritized problems.

The Three Fundamental Traits Of The Most Influential Leaders
[Photo: Flickr user A Jones]

One of the consequences of being asked to "engage" all the time—with brands, celebrities, and causes we care about—is that we're all little activists now. Glued to our screens, many of us are constantly poised to pounce, and often for less-than-constructive reasons.

We call out the smallest mistake, deviation, or error that swims through our myriad feeds, ready to nobly confront, bicker, fight, protest, educate, and police. Some of this can be good and productive, bringing people together to speak truth to power. Often, though, it isn't. However noble or world changing the intent, we tend to find ourselves just nitpicking the powerful, who end up remaining so.

If you think that's an unfair analysis, consider how at precisely the same time that digital micro-activism (or its alternately derided or defended cousin, "slacktivism") has been growing in quantity, intensity, and rancor, the biggest problems the world faces have grown worse, not better: climate change (and the conflict it inspires), economic stagnation, inequality, debt (personal, institutional, and governmental)—just pick your poison. In fact, the World Bank has recently argued that the Internet may itself be driving inequality. And so while you might not conclude that activism is pointless, you may safely wonder whether (at least in its most common forms) it's too little, too late.

So what does this mean for leadership? Is there a better way to lead the charge on changes that matter? I believe there is.

Why Activists Aren't Leaders

Fundamentally, activists aren't leaders, and to understand why, you need to generalize a bit. In general, activists bring awareness and attention to important issues. At any rate, they do that more effectively and more often than they do anything else. And in general, they may—if they're very good at activism—organize networks, build coalitions, and lobby for change. (The modern history of radicalism has been bent on inverting this formula—to stop lobbying powerful institutions and to start dismantling them completely. In general, that hasn't gone as planned.)

The crucial verb in that last paragraph is "lobby." And indeed, a great many activists are effectively lobbyists, confronting the powerful, often on behalf of the poor and powerless. (Many of the most effective activists are themselves poor and powerless.) Partly as a result, activists can fall into a number of traps.

They often devote themselves to single issues affecting especially marginalized groups, a moral undertaking with tactical drawbacks. Because those issues don't directly affect more people (or more powerful people) than they do, they generally wind up getting considered one-dimensionally, and addressed with one-dimensional solutions.

Meanwhile, the bigger, broader problems underlying those issues get overlooked. Indeed, succeeding in the name of a single, narrowly defined cause means being rigid, focused, and ideological—all things that truly influential leaders cannot afford to become.

Being a leader takes a different set of competencies and capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. In order to impose broader, lasting change, leaders instead need to develop three far more powerful—and far more challenging—abilities.

1. Judgment

Leaders have to solve the right problems. They have the unenviable task of prioritizing which issues are the worthiest—not just from an ethical standpoint but from a strategic one.

Leaders need to decide, often subjectively, which problems seem urgent enough to devote the resources of an organization to solving (whether it's a business or a society), and which are secondary issues: the nuisances, effects, and consequences of the truly big problems.

In other words, truly influential leaders must choose the right problems to solve—not just find the right solutions to what may turn out to be wrongly prioritized problems.

2. Open-Mindedness

All that requires a wide-lens view that still doesn't miss the details, from the most apparent to the most inconspicuous ones. While an activist might claim that this problem is the only one that matters right now, and this solution is the best one for it, a leader needs to be wise enough to see past their own assumptions, ideologies, and limitations. Leaders must be vigilantly open-minded.

In order to truly solve problems, and not just implement "solutions," leaders need to consider many possible remedies—no matter how incorrect, irreverent, roundabout, or seemingly absurd they might initially sound. Likewise, that requires devoting more energy and resources to considering a wider breadth of problems than they used to, so they can choose the right ones to tackle in the first place.

3. An Eye To Consequences

Leaders need to understand interrelationships and interdependencies between problems and potential solutions better than anyone else. That’s the great intellectual challenge of leadership—and it’s not a simple one.

Consider Uber. As a marketplace, it’s seen as a great success. By now, you’re familiar with the company championing itself as a solution to societal ills. That’s activism, right? Yet the more it does that, the more it falls prey to the problems I’ve discussed above: apologizing for poor judgment, being closed-minded (and close-lipped), and blind to the unintended consequences of its choices.

Critics now charge it with everything from low-wage labor with little protection to serious safety concerns—some of which might intersect uncomfortably with problems that are far bigger than Uber, like inequality, socioeconomic stagnation, and even gun control.

It's unfair to lay these complex issues solely at Uber's doorstep, of course, but it's perfectly fair to ask whether and how the company either contributes to or ameliorates them. Every ambitious business wants to maximize its influence in people's lives—not just its bottom line. That means holding their feet to the fire on some of those bigger questions, which it takes a different kind of leadership to answer.

Because if we want to change the world as it should and must be changed, we aren't just going to have to hold leaders to higher account or to assess them on the basis of their judgment, open-mindedness, and attention to consequences. We're also going to have to abandon the habits of activists: We'll need to become leaders—truly influential ones—ourselves.

Umair Haque is an author and economist. Follow him on Twitter at @umairh.

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