Why Some Leaders Become Legendary

Friday, July 30, 2021

If I asked you to name some legendary leaders, who do you think of? You might think of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama, among others. Each of these leaders became legendary because, like the metaphorical pebble thrown in the pond, their influence is felt far beyond their personal reach.

What is so special about these individuals? Do legendary leaders have something in common—some special quality—that we mere mortals can acquire to dramatically improve our own leadership skills?

The Common Denominator of Legendary Leadership

Of the legendary leaders I suggest, one common denominator among them is that they all inspired millions of people to make changes and personal sacrifices for the greater good. If you bring this observation down to its simplest form, we are left with the clearest, most accurate definition of leadership:

Leaders inspire positive action in others.

Based on this definition, who can be a leader? Is the title of “leader” reserved for only the heads of companies? Must one be an “executive” to be a leader?

The awesome truth of leadership is that anyone and everyone can be a leader if they decide to.  

The Litmus Test of Leadership

There is a big difference between someone who occupies a leadership position and a leader. That’s why it bothers me to hear some senior management teams referring to themselves as a senior leadership team. At best, doing so implies that only executives can be leaders. At worst, it’s like Napoleon crowning himself emperor.

How can one know if they are truly a leader, as opposed to someone who simply occupies a leadership position? Let’s take a closer look at the key elements of leadership for the answer.

  • Inspire – Leaders connect with people on an emotional level to give them confidence and courage to make a change—often a personal sacrifice—for a greater good.
  • Positive – Followers are motivated to change and sacrifice out of a desire to build a better future and become a better person, not out of fear, revenge, or greed. The benefits of their sacrifice will be enjoyed by the many, not the few.
  • Action – Action is evidence of motivation. Sustained action is evidence of commitment. If nothing is happening, then people aren’t motivated. If action isn’t being sustained, then there’s a problem with the leadership.

These three elements of leadership combine to produce a follower. Therefore, the litmus test of leadership is the answer to this question:

Would anybody willingly follow me if they weren’t being paid to?

Based on that test, how many people in leadership positions are really leaders?

The One Thing All Leaders Do

Take a moment to ponder the answer to the question “Would anybody willingly follow me if they weren’t being paid to?”

If you’re drawing a blank, try answering this question: “Would anybody want to be like me?” Note: that’s a different question than “Would anybody want to be successful like me?” People who want to learn how to be successful like others are not true followers. They are simply observing and possibly mimicking those successful attributes to advance their own careers, which is fine. Truly successful people may want followers; so, they can genuinely lead them into being a transformational leader; there is a huge difference between being a leader and a transformational leader.

A transformational leader is someone who teaches, empowers and guides others, not about how to be successful like them, but about how they can reach their own potential.

In that way, to accept the mantle of leadership is to accept the responsibility to be a teacher. Leading and teaching are inseparably connected. But this connection between leading and teaching is potentially quite dangerous because even bad leaders—people who merely occupy leadership positions—are also teachers. In fact, they are always teaching. Here’s why.

People Scrutinize Leaders

Human beings are wired to seek out threats.  Because those in leadership positions have the power to affect our daily work and our livelihood, people pay far more attention to them. Virtually nothing they say or do goes unnoticed. And people aren’t just watching what leaders say or do, they are inferring why their leaders do some things and don’t do others. People are constantly watching leaders for cues about what they must do to stay out of danger and give themselves an advantage. Whether they know it or not, all leaders, good or bad, are always teaching.

Whether they realize it or not, GOOD LEADERS are always teaching.

Leaders accept and embrace this responsibility. Those who merely occupy leadership positions are either unaware that they are always teaching, or they don’t fully grasp the responsibility that comes with it.

John Maxwell once said, “When you stop loving your people, stop leading your people.