“If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be! What a king! I’d be ruler of all I could see!” thought Yertle the Turtle as he considered how to increase his leadership.
Leading King Yertle to have his subjects stack themselves into a new throne, increasing his view and with it, his dominion.
“’Turtles! More turtles!’ he bellowed and brayed.
And the turtles ‘way down in the pond were afraid.
They trembled. They shook. But they came. They obeyed.”
How many of our supposed leaders have similar views of their position? How many managers and officials look to their position as a means of increasing their own status, instead of improving those that follow them?
Is this what leadership has become? Is this what we want it to mean?
What is Leadership Anyways?
The concept of “leadership” is the latest casualty of buzzword regurgitation, to the point that’s it’s become difficult to pinpoint the true meaning behind the term. When everyone with a Twitter account can claim the title of thought-leader and the preferred leadership style of our elected officials is a fierce commitment to partisan lines and their personal agendas, it’s not surprising that confusion and cynicism run rampant.
Yet through all the noise of overpriced management trainings and sham life coaches, the concept of leadership doesn’t need to be complex. In one of the most straight-forward explanations I’ve seen, David Foster Wallace described his view of leadership in his 2000 essay, Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,
“A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.”
Leadership is empowerment. It’s lifting others up, helping them advance, and making them a part of something bigger than themselves.
In short, it’s helping people to be a little closer to who they’re meant to be.
And our leadership ability won’t be measured by our own advancement, but how well we advance the lives of others.
So how do you measure your own leadership success?
And how would you want your leaders’ to measure theirs?
Leaders Empower Through Sacrifice
“Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
‘Your Majesty, please…I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!’ groaned Mack.”
– Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss
Most of us have had enough terrible bosses to know that having a leadership position doesn’t make you a leader.
This difference often comes down to sacrifice. Is the leader willing to hold herself to a higher standard than she asks of everyone else?
Is the leader willing to be accountable to even greater sacrifice than she asks of her people?
Most recognize the need to make sacrifices as we work our way up the leadership ranks. Yet too often we fall into the trap of thinking that once we’ve achieved these elevated positions, we’re through making sacrifices. We think we’ve taken our turn and now it’s the job of those below us to sacrifice on our behalf.
A good parent wouldn’t suddenly decide they’re done sacrificing today’s comfort to help their children have a better tomorrow. And a good leader should be no different. In the words of Simon Sinek,
“Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers.”
The role of a leader requires constant sacrifice. It’s an ongoing process, not a one-time payment.
What are you willing to sacrifice for the benefit of those around you? What have you been asking others to sacrifice for you?
And through it all, are you helping to lift up others or are you asking them to elevate you?
Leaders Empower by Listening
“’You hush up your mouth!’ howled the mighty King Yertle.
‘You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!’”
– Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss
Think about those you’re looking to empower. What’s important to them? What do they want to achieve? And why?
Leaders find these answers by listening. They listen to their people’s stories. They ask questions and they keep their own mouths shut.
In a recent discussion with Tim Ferriss, former Home Depot CEO Frank Blake described his position as “prominent, but not significant.” In his words,
“The only significant jobs are the jobs of the people who are helping customers. And so everything you do is in support of your front line associates and your customers and that’s how you have to think about the orientation of your business.”
Blake recognized that it’s only through his front line associates that the company would be successful. So he prioritized making connections and understanding their concerns. From having weekly dinners with associates to giving out his personal email and phone number to discuss issues, he constantly prioritized the people within his organization. And they responded in kind.
Leaders set aside time to make connections and understand people’s aspirations and motivations. They understand where people want to go and what they’ll need to get there.
And they know enough to differentiate between what people want and what people need. Good leaders don’t cave in to every request, but recognize what’s necessary to help people achieve their long-term goals.
When do you become involved with those you’re looking to lead? When you need something? Or when they might?
Every discussion is an opportunity to make that connection. And every conversation is an opportunity to learn something new.
As Larry King famously reminds himself every morning:
“Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
Your Followers are Your Legacy
“And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”
– Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss
Just as Yertle is eventually knocked from the stack to land in the mud, every leader who continually prioritizes himself over others will share a similar fate.
We all have this choice. We can focus on our own accomplishments and our own advancement. Or we can work on lifting up others. As Jackie Robinson once said,
“A life isn’t significant except for its impact on other lives.”
Leadership is simply the process of bringing people somewhere better. Somewhere they weren’t likely to go on their own.
It’s empowering others to reach a better place. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Everyone leaves some kind of legacy. For some it’s positive. For others it’s negative. But we all have this choice.
What impact do you plan to leave? What do you want your legacy to be?
Decide it now. And let’s live according to those aspirations.