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by Tyler Borders

Some years ago I was invited to speak at an innovation and entrepreneurship conference. I was asked to focus my remarks around what it takes to be a successful leader and business owner. Rather than simply drawing from my scratch pad of experiences around this topic—for which there are mountains of great books already—I decided to consult my mentors, influencers, and recognized leaders in the field. I sent an email to a handful of people that fit this bill, asking them plainly, “What is leadership?” I left the question intentionally open and vague, curious as to what I would draw from this brilliant group of people.

All of the answers I received were intelligent, insightful, and useful. However, there was one answer that caught me off guard: That of Doug Crandall, West Point graduate and professor, Stanford MBA, and author of a couple books on the topic.

“What is leadership?” I asked.

Doug’s response, “Turn around. Is anybody following you?”

I read his answer over and over, somewhat irritated by the brevity of it. Doug must be too busy to be bothered with such broad sweeping questions, I thought. It took a few minutes of digestion before the answer really clicked in and I recognized how brilliant it was.

Bottom line: Leadership is behaving in a way that’s worthy of being followed. Draw all the diagrams and charts and conduct all the research studies you want, but if nobody is following you’re not leading.

I’ve since adjusted Doug’s answer to: “Is anybody following you voluntarily?”

Voluntarily. Not because they are being corporately coerced into following you through an org chart and a salary that says they must. Not because not following you could have a detrimental impact on their livelihood. All of that is ultimately rooted in fear. Not because they have to follow… Because you earned it.

Turn around. Is anybody who appears to be following you doing so voluntarily? Would they still be in your line if the tethers were cut? Be honest with yourself.

Thousands followed William Wallace and Joan of Arc, often to their deaths. Thousands linked arms and marched with MLK. Ellen and Oprah have built zealous cult followings. Jobs was followed out of Apple and into Next by his faithful, and back to Apple. How about arguably the most influential leader in the history of mankind? One who was so worthy of following that twelve rough and tumble fishermen left their jobs and homes to walk around a hot desert for three years without pay or perks. A man so instrumental that our global calendar is set to his life. That’s leadership. You’re going somewhere and someone wants to go with you.

You have the opportunity to lead, not only in your place of employment but in your homes and community. Are you behaving in a way that’s worthy of a line forming?

There are infinite styles and models by which to lead successfully. You can lead with ferocity and confidence – Michael Jordan. You can lead with swagger and creativity – Beyoncé. You can lead with positivity and compassion – Patch Adams. You can lead with authority and dominance – General Patton. There’s no precise prototype for effectiveness, except authenticity.

I find that many are scouring leadership books trying to figure out how to be. The answer is there’s no one way to go about this, as long as it’s authentically you. Early on I would try and mimic leaders that I respected; be it a mentor, pastor, or my father. Until I realized that their armor didn’t quite fit me.

So maybe I wasn’t the nurturing and sensitive leader… There were years where I thought this was the way I ought to be as I observed leaders who fit this style—but it just never suited me. I don’t comfort, coddle, or cultivate very well at all. My interest is in the innovation and invention. My focus is the progress and the fight. I’m not going to hold your hand and make you feel safe, but if you want to get in my line you’re going to be a part of creating things that nobody in the industry has ever seen. You’ll be pushed and uncomfortable and hopefully exhilarated, and we’re going to breakthrough in original ways. If that’s appealing to you, you might like my line. If you need something else in your career, you need a different line. That’s perfectly okay.

Know who you are first. Your effectiveness as a leader will stem from that. Start with your natural aptitudes, inclinations, and talents, and lead from that nucleus. Those who are attracted to your authentic anchors will gravitate to you and propel the vision forward with you.

If your focus is tallying up the number of direct reports you’ve accrued, you’re terribly off course. If nobody is following you, you’re not leading—you’re managing. And humans don’t like to be managed; they like to be inspired. If you want to be a leader, be worth following.