Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leaders vs. Successful People

Did you notice how all successful people seem to qualify as “Leaders”?  
Leadership seminars often invite personally successful people, even though they may not have led more than their housemaid.  We see many presentations on leadership carrying quotable quotes from “successful leaders” that include the likes of Pele, Albert Einstein and Shah Rukh Khan (Bollywood actor).
 Don’t get me wrong.  I respect all these people.  They have achieved huge success in whatever they attempted and are great role models for generations.  But, the question is, can we really call them “Leaders”.  Can we take their views on how to lead, as a guide in our own quest for leadership? 
There is indeed no doubt that one cannot achieve success without focus, determination, hard work, sacrifice, etc.  It may also be difficult to argue (against) the case that such qualities shape good leaders.  However, to equate all success with leadership would be to confuse issues and blur the concept of leadership.  

This takes us to the logical question, does leadership necessarily mean leading others?  Is someone who exhibits great personal leadership and achieves world-wide recognition and success in her chosen field a Leader?  Just to make sure, I did some Googling on the term “Leader”.  See the box alongside for my findings.  the images above are part of what came up on Google images for "Leaders".  They seem to confirm my 'limiting' view of Leadership... you really need to lead someone else to be called one.  
My concern is that one could end up learning the wrong lessons if one followed the views of such “successful non-leaders”!   For, very often, such successful people are great executors, thinkers, creators, etc -- traits which do not necessarily sit well with leadership. For example, we all know that a key function and quality of leadership is the ability to delegate, motivate, control results, etc.  All of these qualities would seem alien to someone who led only himself.

Similarly, we also know of leaders who have been thrust into leadership positions due to totally accidental circumstances -- and without necessarily having to exercise the noble qualities of personal success that we described above.  Examples that quickly come to mind are political... Sonia Gandhi in India and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. 
The point is, though successful people seem a lot like good leaders and should definitely be celebrated and feted equally, they are very different.  The qualities and experiences they bring to the table are only partially relevant to good leadership.  In fact they cannot even be treated as a subset of “Leadership”, for some of their qualities may not be very helpful in the making of a good leader.  One might even question whether their experiences belong in the literature on Management and Leadership.  I would rather represent Successful People and Leaders by the Venn diagram shown here.
-- Sri