“Good leaders make people feel that
they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that
he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that
happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.” — Warren
Bennis


The key phrase in this sample of Bennis’ wisdom is, “Everyone
feels that he or she makes a difference.” This simple idea exposes the essence
of leadership and the source of the magical outcomes achieved by highly
effective leaders. Their success doesn’t depend on charisma or on special
traits and characteristics reserved for the favored few. It doesn’t depend on
motivating followers or on extraordinary interpersonal skills. If you happen to
have charisma, special traits or characteristics, a terrific knack for
motivating others, or the gift of being charming, they sure can’t hurt
anything. Keep and cultivate all of them. Even so, if you help others feel that
they make a difference, you are a leader of the first order, with or without an
abundance of those exceptional, personal assets.


Perhaps coining a new maxim may facilitate exploring the
principle in more detail: “Leadership is helping others seek what you seek.”


Consider the two elements of the new maxim. First, “Leadership
is helping.” Key here is first seeing that leadership is neither leading nor
having followers. Rather, you are a helper who is helping other people. Max De
Pree described it like this, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define
reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a
servant.” As a servant, your role is to help. The point is that leadership
is a helping profession in the same sense that teaching, social work, and the
ministry are helping professions. Stop to consider what it means to be a
helping professional.


As a professional, you base your practice on accepted theory and
knowledge, verified techniques and strategies, and on “best practice.” You
don’t make it up as you go along, base your actions on personal feelings or
preferences, or just do whatever strikes your fancy today.


As a professional, your behavior and actions are governed by a
keen sense of responsibility. You are clear about the values that underpin your
leadership and the standard you use as you help others seek what you seek. You
do the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, no exceptions,
no excuses; and you help others adhere to this standard.


As a professional, you take the initiative to assure that what
needs done gets done. If there is something important to do and it isn’t
getting done, it’s your job until it’s done. You assure that the necessary
resources and services are deployed to complete the job. Further, you help
others adopt the same orientation to personal and professional initiative.


As a professional, you direct all of your talents, energy, and
resources toward a single outcome: “Doing the right things.” As you help others
seek what you seek, you assure that they have the training, support, and
resources they need as they similarly direct their efforts toward the same
outcome.


As a professional, you continuously evaluate your performance,
your progress toward the goal. Continuous Performance Improvement is
based on a simple idea. You are committed to getting better and better at
getting better and better. What’s more, that commitment extends to helping
those who seek what you seek to get better and better at doing the right things
with you.


The second element of the maxim is “Others seek what you seek.”
There are two points that need your careful attention with this element. First,
you must be clear about what you seek, for it’s this vision that you are
helping others seek. As Theodore Hesburgh put it, “You can’t blow an uncertain
trumpet.” You communicate your vision of the right things, with a clarity and
passion that compels others to participate in your journey.


Second, understand that those whom you are helping are tuned
into WIIFM. “What’s in it for me?” is asked and has to be satisfactorily
answered by everyone. Whether you will be extended the continuing opportunity
to help depends on how well the answer to the WIIFM question fits with the
needs and interests of those you hope to lead. The answer must be that they do
and will make a difference. Only then will they feel centered and assured that
they and their work matter.