What Allures Us to Great Leaders?

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Air Force General John Michel sheds some light on what it is that makes people follow great leaders. Michel begins by relating the details of the winter of 1777 in which General George Washington and his revolutionary army faced many hardships. Michel writes, “Yet history clearly records that despite the harsh conditions and lack of equipment that left sentries to stand on their hats to prevent frostbite to their feet, the men who emerged from this terrible winter never gave up. Why? Largely because of the inspiring and selfless example of their leader, George Washington. He didn’t ask the members of his army to do anything he wouldn’t do. If they were cold, he was cold. If they were hungry, he went hungry. If they were uncomfortable, he too choose to experience the same discomfort.”

Michel tells readers that Washington’s “profoundly positive” demonstration of leadership teaches us that leadership is about “compelling [people] to join you in pushing into new territory.”

The lesson Washington’s profoundly positive example teaches is that leading people well isn’t about driving them, directing them, or coercing them; it is about compelling them to join you in pushing into new territory. It is motivating them to share your enthusiasm for pursuing a shared ideal, objective, cause, or mission. In essence, it is to always conduct yourself in ways that communicates to others that you believe people are always more important than things.

Michel quotes Donald Walter from his book The Art of Leadership. Walter state’s that great leadership “transcends intelligence and merely technical competence. It implies an ability to see the lesser in relation to the greater; the immediate in relation to the long term; the need for victory in relations to the needs that will arise once victory has been achieved.”

“Victory” in any scenario is always the goal; however, Michel notes, “this doesn’t imply that I should indiscriminately pursue my goals or blindly pursue my objectives at all costs. What Walters’ wise words strive to remind us of is that leadership, be it as a general in the military, an executive in the boardroom, a pastor serving a congregation, or a parent providing for a family, isn’t about exercising power over people, but rather, it’s about finding effective ways to work with people.”

The most important part of leadership is staying “other-centered” rather than “self-centered,” Michel writes.
Michel ends by writing, “Now is the time to not lose sight of the fact that people, be it in warfare, politics, religion, education, or business, are always more important than things.”