There is a great line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” written as part of a forged letter from the Countess Olivia to the puritanical and appropriately named Malvolio that I keep coming back to time and time again: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Admittedly the letter and these words are a practical joke on Malvolio intended (falsely) to lure him into believing Olivia loves him. In the right actor’s hands these words are highly comic. But like so much in Shakespeare’s work, there is great wisdom behind the comedy. And if we substitute the word “leadership” for the word “greatness”, I think you can begin to see why I keep coming back to this line again and again.
I tend to think these three “groupings” of greatness/leadership can be aligned neatly along a bell curve. On one side, there are a handful of men and women in every generation who naturally seem to have great leadership instincts, ambition, and intelligence and who become successes early on in their careers. On the other side, there are also a few lucky (or unlucky) souls who suddenly find themselves propelled into positions of leadership whether they planned it or not. But the vast majority of CEOs are trained and developed over many years and have to work hard to achieve positions of leadership.
So, how does one “achieve” leadership in business? As in the quote above, I will limit myself to three observations.
First, you have to want it and by that I mean you have to feel deep in your being that you can make a difference to the world if you were responsible for running a business. Although there are plenty of egotistical, self-serving CEOs and business owners out there, these kinds of leaders often face burn-out or organizational rejection before their due date. These are the sort of situations in which coaches are brought in to help as it becomes clear that the danger to the organization is potentially greater than the benefits. Sometimes the coaches arrive too late.
Second, you need resilience. The way I like to think about it, leaders need to be as efficient as possible when it comes to being resilient – the faster a CEO can bounce back from a set-back, the more time he or she has to achieve their ultimate goal of being a great leader. Again, this a skill set that can be developed by those who need to be more efficient when getting passed set-backs.
There are many opinions as to what a possible third important personality trait that potential CEOs must develop if they don’t have the skill set already – some say it’s the ability to fire difficult or unproductive employees, some say it’s good listening, others say it’s being able to think strategically. A lot of people think CEOs need to appear confident and have a certain swagger at all times. I think, however, that truly great CEOs must develop the capacity to be vulnerable. Admittedly this can be a long, hard climb for many business leaders.
Vulnerability keeps a CEO on his or her feet, constantly surveying the scene for possible roadblocks or mistakes they or their organization could make. Being vulnerable also means that you recognize you don’t understand everything and you should be constantly reassessing, learning and transforming. And finally, in its most obvious definition, vulnerability makes a CEO more human and approachable. It is almost always this humanity that attracts people to him or her – employees, supplies, customers, you name it – who are inspired by the leaders’ ability to connect on a human level.
And that is what makes the practical joke on Malvolio so poignant. His complete lack of humanity and vulnerability makes him exactly that – vulnerable. He is ultimately humiliated and brought down by his supposed friends and colleagues because he lacked the ability to see possible downfalls or roadblocks. Not something any CEO or business owner ever wants to have happen to them.