Being a Leader is Hard, so WHAT (are we going to do about it)?

<Yes, this is a long one:  1833 well-chosen words>

Much has been written about leadership and sometimes it is fair to wonder whether there is anything new to be said. My theory is that the more we read about leadership in our quest to become good and conscientious leaders the more stressful it becomes. Our minds are cluttered with information, much of it rephrased, reconfigured, full of compelling advice, and we often do not have the time to step back and to reflect on what of all of it we, as individuals, need to take on in our quest for competence in such a role.

And so, it was a great thrill to discover Marcus Buckingham’s book, “The One Thing You Need to Know”, on my bookshelf. I had read other titles by him and have been strongly influenced by his research and analysis, and so naturally gravitated to the cashier in the book store with this book in hand, all set to read it. After a time, without my reading it, the book found its way onto my bookshelf – the one that contains books about leadership. “One day I’ll definitely read that,” I promised myself.

That one day presented itself a few months ago. I’d forgotten I owned the book. I was in the throes of preparing a workshop on team and organisational leadership. I wanted to do something fresh and interesting and sought inspiration. I went to the bookshelf and stared at my collection. And, there it was – the book that does what I’ve felt was needed: The book that applies the Keep it Simple principle. Instead of telling about it, or interpreting it, I’ve extracted a series of quotes from the book. I liken it to using real saffron in my cooking rather than that pseudo stuff. You need the full flavour of the book, but here I’ll just tantalise you a bit.

And why am I doing this?

Well, because being a leader is hard, and as a leadership coach my clients and I have to decide what we are going to do about it. Buckingham’s book has helped me in formulating new and compelling questions leaders need to reflect upon in the process of refining their leadership and choosing their action paths. That’s what we’re going to do about it. It is a direction I’ve chosen in my leadership coaching, driven by my own need for simplicity and clarity.

“THE ONE THING YOU NEED TO KNOW…About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success”: Marcus Buckingham. (Simon & Shuster) (2005)

Extracts from the Leadership section of the book.

“[The job of great leaders] is to rally people toward a better future…. They are instigators. Driven by their compulsion for a better future, their challenge is to do everything in their power to get other people to join together to make this future come true. So, by definition, they will perform this role well only when they find a way to make many people, regardless of each person’s uniqueness, excited by and confident in this better future. If, through their words, actions, images, pictures and scores, they can tap into those things we all share, they will succeed as leaders. If they can’t, they will struggle. The ONE THING every great leader knows he must do is:

Discover what is universal and capitalise on it.

The better you are able to do this, the better you will lead…..The truly effective leader, while not denying the truth that each person is different, would choose instead to focus on a separate but equally powerful truth: despite our differences, we all share a great deal….

The ability to cut through differences and fasten on to common ground – emotionally – is at the core of great leadership.


Since it is so important for the effective leader to tap into those things that we all share, the obvious question becomes ‘What, exactly, do we all share?’…..My point is simply that, although each society embraces different customs….there is indeed such a thing as human nature and that all societies, through their different customs and languages, reflect this shared nature….

Every leader is indebted to the anthropologist Donald Brown for giving us the raw details for describing these universals of human nature. Over many years, he took it upon himself to dig up all the documented findings from every society ever studied and compile a list of human universals. By my count he found 372 of them….

Reading the list of universals in its entirety…conjures conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it is depressing, yet hardly surprising, to discover that every society has weapons, rape, and murder. But on the other hand…(there are)…trade, toys and the practice of taking turns… They imply that all humans share a common experience, we share common virtues and vices, and therefore that, if we listen closely enough, we should be able to empathize with and understand one another….

For the leader, the list offers clues to the universals he can call upon to rally his followers to a better future. These universals can be readily distilled down to five, and, in the spirit of ‘know someone’s fear and you’ll know their need’, we can view them as five pairings of fears and needs. This is not to suggest that the five pairs are exhaustive. They don’t capture the totality of the human experience….(b)ut they do explain why leaders are necessary. They do point to what followers require of a leader. And one of them in particular holds the secret to your effectiveness as a leader. If you can narrow your focus on this one fear and its accompanying need, you are much more likely to engender in your people the confidence to follow you into the future.

1. Fear of Death (our own and our family’s) – The Need for Security….

Some of our most basic needs, then, stem from our urge to secure our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

2. Fear of the Outsider – The Need of Community….All societies live in groups, and these groups are not based simply on family or blood ties. All societies make distinctions between those who are part of the group and those who aren’t, and we are always biased in favour of the former.

3. Fear of the Future – The Need for Clarity. Every society has a concept of the future….In every society there is a word for hope and for anticipation…But every society is also anxious about the future. We are aware that the future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. We all, on some level, fear the future….This is why, in every society, we give prestige to those people who claim to be able to predict the future….if you can help us see the future we will give you special status.

4. Fear of Chaos – The Need for Authority. Two universal (human traits) reveal just how much we all fear chaos….Every society has devised its own story of how the world came to be, and in each story, in each creation myth, the world was created out of chaos….Second, one of the most universal of human traits is our need to classify things…By imposing on the world an artificial grid that sorts things out into discrete chunks, we convince ourselves that we are keeping the chaos at bay, and that we are in control. (e.g. age, body parts, colours, animals, plants, space, weather conditions…)

And out of our desire for control springs our need for authority. Having someone in charge just seems more organised than a chaotic free-for-all…Every society has a concept of the need to balance dominance with submission. And every society has a word for leader.

5. Fear of Insignificance – The Need for Respect. Every society sees the individual person as having worth and a value that is distinct from the group’s. Every society has a word for self-image, and an accompanying concept that a positive self-image is better than a negative one. Every society also espouses the… idea that, to a great extent, our self-image is in the hands of other people – all of us pay attention to what other people think of us…

Thus, in every society, we find a craving for prestige and for the respect that comes with it.

Those, in brief, are the five human universals distilled from Brown’s list: the need for security, for community, for clarity, for authority, and for respect. The more you understand the interplay of these fears and needs in your people, the more effective a leader you will be. However, although each is relevant to your efforts at leading, one of them demands your greatest focus….

(T)he job of a leader is to rally people toward a better future….the only (universal trait) that deals explicitly with the future is the third one, our fear of the future. The first two are inherently static. If you orient your leadership towards them (Need for security and community) the best outcome you can hope for is that you will preserve the status quo….In contrast, if you can come to grips with the third universal, if you can grapple with our fear of the future and somehow neutralise it, even turn it into something positive, you will have positioned yourself to pull of something truly significant as a leader…

By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear; to define the future in such vivid terms, through your actions, words, images, pictures, heroes and scores that we can all see where you, and thus we, are headed….Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the pre-occupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

This does not mean that you must describe in precise detail all of your tactics and plans and deadlines. On the contrary…to keep your followers challenged and engaged you must allow them plenty of…space to invent, create, and experiment. But it does mean that your ability to be clear and your followers’ feelings as causally linked. The one drives the other.


1. Who do we serve?

2. What is our core strength?

3. What is our core score?

4. What actions can we take today?

As leader you have to develop ‘intense clarity’ about whom the team serves: become the ‘servant leader’.”

And so the corner has been turned on the complexity of leadership. The true skill is in achieving simplicity: Simplicity with the clarity that can come only from a depth of curiosity and reflection. It is true that it is harder to be simple with clarity. It requires regular and full attention. One doesn’t struggle to become a leader and then relaxing back into old, easy habits. Being a leader surely requires constant and deep reflection to develop and maintain clarity of vision and purpose. It is hard to do that alone. That is why leadership coaching has become such a precious and sought-after service.

© Delphine du Toit (2014)

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