How to tell if you have leadership potential

A common refrain about Generation Y is that there is a dearth of leadership. It’s something I heard every day when I was a twenty-something at work, when people were saying Generation X were slackers. And, I have a feeling that while the Baby Boomers were high at Woodstock, their elders were saying there was a dearth of leadership in the younger generation.

So, instead of constantly complaining about the coming doom in the leadership realm, we should see the idea of leadership as dynamic, and the faster we can understand how it changes, the faster we can identify the upcoming leaders of our time.

1. New leaders are facilitators rather than dictators.
The world used to be hierarchical and you did what leaders said. You could climb closer and closer to the leader at the top of the ladder if you listened to the leader and put your career in their hands. Now, top-down leadership is completely out of fashion because it only works if the person at the top can take care of the people at the bottom. It’s a patriarchal way of life that is not tenable in an environment where companies lay people off every year.

So instead, leaders have to focus on helping people to be their best selves. The long-term vision that leaders promote has to involve the long-term vision of the followers’ dreams in order to get everyone on board. Today leaders are facilitators rather than dictators; they lead from the middle.

The result is, eventually, an organization with no official bosses. And, before you assume that doesn’t work, take a look at this article in The Wall St. Journal about Valve, a videogame company with 300 people and no promotions or titles, only projects and champions. The most remarkable thing about the article is the language the members of the company use to talk about office productivity. It is completely new—because when you change the top-down culture, you have to change the top-down language.

2. New leaders are not out in front.
There is a workforce obsession with entrepreneurship, which has led to an academic obsession with research into entrepreneurship to attract more students to MBA programs. Consequently, we have a lot of entrepreneurs who paid for MBAs and don’t need them, but also, we have a keen understanding the process of getting new ideas.

And we know that most often, the people who have all the new ideas are crazyThey live in their heads.  They are control freaks. Leaders are people who can come in just behind the idea people and say, “Here’s a way that this idea works for you.” Leaders make the idea less about the person who thought of it and more about the people who grab onto it. Leaders come on second, or third, and the first thing they are, before good leaders, is a good follower. The best illustration of this I can think of is in this video, (which I love so much and you should click that link.)

Barbara Kellerman, at the Center for Public Leadership, outlines how leaders emerge organically in her book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. The important thing, though, is if you want to change the world, think about how to find that second person. That’s the one who will give your ideas traction. And if you want to lead, look for ideas worth propelling.

3. New leaders come to leadership in a roundabout way.
If modern leadership is not about command and control but rather about facilitation and inspiration, then today’s leaders will not be people who set out to lead. That’s the old-fashioned way, and it won’t resonate with people around you.

People obsessed with being leaders is inherently inauthentic anyway. Historically, truly revolutionary leaders don’t set out to be revolutionaries, but rather, they take actions that are completely natural to them, though contrary to what is expected by society, and in that moment, the people areound them are ripe for something new.

This is why most revolutionaries are not first-borns. Because first-borns are more likely to feel comfortable following the rules.

People who will lead today are people who facilitate collaboration and intuitively bring out the best in other people. If you are doing this, you might be a leader already.

4. New leaders are not groundbreakers.
We are in a conservative era. Not conservative like McCarthyism. But conservative like we are just trying to get by. The US is no longer a powerhouse, college is no longer a ticket to financial stability, divorce rates loom high and the chances of you earning more than your parents is low. This is all to say that Generation X is focused on creating family stability, and Generation Y is extremely risk averse. (Before you argue with this conclusion, click that last link, okay?)

We’re in an era of conservative leadership. Not politically. But in a broader, more classical sense of conservative, the idea of trying to keep change from coming too fast. A great example of this shift in leadership is Madonna. She built a career on being groundbreaking, new and shocking. That worked twenty years ago. But today, people are turned off. It simply doesn’t work.

Bill Taylor wrote an article in Fast Company titled, The Leader of the Future. In it he explains that the old kind of leader was a visionary. The new kind is one who helps people see reality and take action based on that. Taylor says that leaders of the future help people face the tough challenges that come their way.

5. New leaders lead online.
In the old leadership we could talk bombastically about our greatness and our future and it didn’t matter if we could connect in an authentic way to the leader. Today, stripped of our sense of grandeur, we need leaders to help us see the truth about where we are, which means we need leaders who are authentic about who they are as well. The emergence of the Internet – with it’s openness and non-hierarchical nature — coincides nicely with our need to be lead from the middle by people who are authentic. This is why the new leader will lead online. We saw this with Obama, funding his 2008 campaign online, and the CEO of Sun, resigning via Twitter.

Check out the story on NPR about Mitt Romney’s running mate. Mark Memmott says that you can judge who the likely running mate will be by whose Wikipedia page has the most edits. And Senator Rob Portman is winning by a large margin: 98 edits last Tuesday alone. It’s a metaphor for leadership today: you can’t edit your own Wikipedia page — the editors will take the page down if you do that. The page has to be edited by the followers, who attach their own name to the edit.

When you look at your own potential for leadership, look at your capacity for transparency, your ability to deliver difficult news to the people around you, and your interest in inspiring grand behavior in people who might not be feeling so grand. These are the tasks of leaders today. It’s a different challenge than leaders of earlier generations, which is why so many people fear there’s a leadership vacuum. In fact, we are entering a new realm of leadership that is collaborative and uplifting. And for some of you this will mean your time has come.

40 replies
  1. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Hi again, Penelope!

    Generally I try adding another layer to your conversation. Not this time. In my opinion you covered this subject completely.

    One thought does come to mind, though.

    Leading through inspiration and example is much more subtle than domination. The object is to HIDE the influence rather than assert it through intimidation.

    If subtlety is the bedrock of encouragement, then one’s expanded ego has no place in this formula.

    What did they say? “The meek will inherit the Earth?”


  2. kris costello
    kris costello says:

    Bravo! well said. i used to worry about my son’s interest in video games (age 9) until he started connecting and conversing with other kids online, and i started listening in to the incredible leadership skills he was developing and using in that endeavor (huge for a kids formally DX’d with aspergers) happily he is now somewhat “bored” with games and has graduated to outside adventures. i am still amazed at how he can influence a cavalcade of kids and get them working in the same direction. way better skills than i have! a new generation for sure!

  3. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    I remember getting chastised by my teacher for backing out of a leadership conference she nominated me for in middle school. Didn’t she understand that I HATED standing out?

    It took me another 10 years to learn that introverts can lead…but in a completely different way. We’re not always out there in front yelling, “Look at me!” (#2), but we’re great facilitators (#1), and we come about leadership in relation to a cause we believe in rather than the pursuit of power for the sake of a title or authority (#3).

  4. Deila
    Deila says:

    Great insight, loved your post. And I loved that video. I see that I am the first-born rule follower and my hubby is the facilitator–I hope his time has come. He likes to use the analogy of working on a jigsaw puzzle, which he did as a kid with his sisters, and how when one person tackled the never-ending sky part, everyone was motivated to follow. In his last entrepreneurial project a dictator came in, took over, and kicked him out.

  5. ValterV
    ValterV says:

    “We’re in an era of conservative leadership. […]
    A great example of this shift in leadership is Madonna. She built a career on being groundbreaking, new and shocking. That worked twenty years ago. But today, people are turned off. It simply doesn’t work.”

    Well, it worked great for Lady Gaga.
    Another great popstar, waaaay NOT conservative, is (was) Amy Winehouse.
    People still love excess and shock, because it’s oh-so-exciting (and it makes them forget their own mediocrity).

    • Matt Fischer
      Matt Fischer says:

      I totally agree with you. Madonna doesn’t sell music anymore because she’s old enough to be a mother or grandmother to the generation that’s buying music.

  6. Ryan Frew
    Ryan Frew says:

    Great post, but I think there is a little bit of contradiction going on here, even though I agree with the majority of the content.

    “Workforce obsession with entrepreneurship”
    “New leaders are not groundbreakers – we live in a conservative era”

    What?? How can we be obsessed with entrepreneurship, but then be risk averse conservatives?

  7. Kayla Ramiscal
    Kayla Ramiscal says:

    I always need to remember this. When I was younger (high school) people wanted leaders to be dictators, which is what I became good at. But in college, that wasn’t what they wanted anymore and since it was the only thing I knew… I didn’t get involved in leadership positions a much as I should have. It showed me that different people have different needs.

    Do you think that these leadership benchmarks are true for all people, in all organizations? Or do you think some people prefer a stronger, more dominant leadership style?

  8. HBD
    HBD says:

    Thank you Penelope!

    When I was 19, I became the youngest president of the biggest student organization on campus. What made it so difficult was that -as a female- I couldn’t find a leader to emulate. So I tried to be an “Alpha male” leader, and it was a disaster.
    The second part of my term, I decided I would stop pretenting. I was a nice and caring person, and not afraid to show it. I’d encourage my team and the members, try to get to know them and be authentic. Guess what, it made wonders! Number of members up, rate of turn over down, members’ satisfaction up, and my own sanity level up!

    I think this new leadership is a great chance for women, because it much more suits them. It is also a chance for men, who won’t have to play a constant poker face because they will be allowed and encouraged to be authentic, which always involves showing vulnerability.

  9. Mimsey
    Mimsey says:

    “Now, top-down leadership is completely out of fashion because it only works if the person at the top can take care of the people at the bottom.”

    That certainly eliminates Romney as a leader.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, well, it’s nice that you added this. I am voting for Obama. And I looked at this post after I published it and I thought: I should have had the Republicans pay me for this. At first glance it looks so good for them.


      • mysticaltyger
        mysticaltyger says:

        I can’t believe anyone would think only Romney is “top down”. When are people going to realize BOTH parties are top down. They are just top down about different things. Each supports different pieces of a totalitarian agenda. I wish people would wake up to this.

  10. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    why is ‘leadership as a skill being sold so much now? Everyone’s out there telling everyone that they should be leaders.
    That video link you mentioned is just so awesome. We need that- collaborators. If the term ‘follower’ is so inferior sounding, maybe ‘collaborator’ should be the new buzz word.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thanks for the link to Barbara Kellerman’s book on following. I haven’t read it but the Publishers Weekly editorial review notes the following with which I have always firmly believed – “… she notes that we are all followers at different points in time.”
    I think leading and following are akin to talking and listening. They are two different modes which we need to be able to move into and out of at opportune times.

  12. ben
    ben says:

    LOVE the video! As a winner of the 6th Grade Arthur A. Bubb Citizenship Award, I was handpicked to be a leader. I really never understood why. Until now.

  13. chris
    chris says:

    In the video, the first guy danced alone for quite a while, before being joined by the critical #2 man.

    What if the opportunity (the music playing) had ended, the music had been more brief? Is there a time-line that is identifiable? A critical time to step forward? A length of time to keep on dancing, waiting for #2? (I don’t think the first guy was actually waiting for anyone to join him–I think he was just dancing because he felt compelled to do so.)

  14. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    You should’ve put Paul Rayan’s Wiki page up there. That’s just mean spirited of me I’m sorry but I’m working on not doing that sort of thing but sometimes I back slide.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Trying my damnedest to apply these principles to presidential politics, and coming up short–anyone else trying to apply these leadership qualities to candidates?

    • Terry
      Terry says:

      Who is Paul Rayan? That’s mean spirited of me. I am sorry and I am working on not doing that sort of thing but sometimes I drink at lunch.

      • chris
        chris says:

        Paul Ryan, chosen by Mitt Romney as his running mate on Sat.
        Ryan is a congressman from Wisconsin, the head of the budget committee, whose budget proposal is said to do away with Medicare and provide more tax cuts for the wealthy. Ryan is smart and very, very conservative. It is believed by some that Romney chose Ryan to appease the ultra-conservative branch of the Republican party.

        Many thought Portman would be Romney’s choice . . . thus the Portman wiki page at the beginning of this blog post.

  15. Darla
    Darla says:

    You just explained my 15 year old’s mentality! I have been a bit frantic thinking that I was doing this whole parenting gig wrong. And then I read your article “The real deal about Gen Y: they’re inherently conservative” and I thought, WOAH! That’s spot-on.

  16. Erica Lane
    Erica Lane says:

    “New leaders lead online”. Love it! Transparency, engagement, building a platform are three ways that people end up becoming leaders in a roundabout way. Many end up becoming leaders online because they love the people that they serve and they serve them well. Their leadership is a simple by-product of the value that they bring to others.

  17. Alyosha
    Alyosha says:

    It is nice to see that business is finally coming around to the law firm model.

    Seriously, each of your points except the last one is a model for how to succeed in a law firm. Partners in law firms get ahead by helping the careers of associates and getting the pick of the best associates to work with on their matters. Lawyers certainly don’t set out to be leaders — they become leaders as it becomes necessary. And they certainly aren’t innovators. It is thinly disguised insult in a legal brief to call another lawyer’s arguments “creative”. What is required is a mastery of precedents (case law and transactional precedents) and an ability to predict the future based on these precedents and to advise clients accordingly. And lawyers more often than not are risk averse — that is why they become lawyers, settle for hourly fees instead of equity returns and have a career advising others how to put their money at risk.

    • Terry
      Terry says:

      This is an insightful comment, especially as the articles regarding Valve mentions that equity is not broadly held, as it isn’t in law firms and many other private organizations. Anyone who doesn’t see there is a heirarchy, even in a “bossless” organization, is going to walk into a buzzsaw. Also, as in a law firm, you will have staff employees who only see their jobs as 9-5 (or part time) and don’t really care if they are advancing their careers through 360 peer review; those folks have to be managed fairly and efficiently. If you are managing a Wal-Mart you have a different challenge than if you are managing software engineers.

      It would be interesting to introduce the topic of “Steve Jobs” in this context, since he was a hugely authoritarian, a collaborator, a facilitator, and a visionary.

      Much like Penelope’s beloved Myers Briggs, there are clearly many different styles of leadership and the distribution of style will vary across time and across industries. It would seem that in an information rich age (too much) versus an information poor age (knowledge is power), effective management of information is an edge which suggests collaborative leadership and work styles. Without market information, Ford in the day gave the world all black cars and, later, the Edsel.

  18. PM Hut
    PM Hut says:

    There is one sign that tells you that you are a real leader, when your followers are there just to please you.

    Watching mad men this whole weekend, I remember Peggy telling Don Draper that they’re all there because they just want him to be happy.

    He’s a real leader because he’s consistent, he maintains a distance, he’s fair, and he’s good at what he does.

  19. NB
    NB says:

    This post felt so Seth Godiny to me – esp the last line “and for some of you this will mean your time has come.” The new leaders of today seem to really cross-promote each other, intentionally or accidentally, and the purported message to the audience feels secondary to me once that club status has been achieved. Felt annoyed by some Kris Carr + Oprah love fest and longed the days when leaders weren’t referencing each other in their TED talks or SxSW panels. Leaders were far away from the people and from other leaders, like the old slavophile cult of the Czar: “God is near but the Czar is far away.” I generally like the writing on this blog – quite a lot – when it is you talking from places of self doubt or ambivalence more than as a leader of a tribe.

  20. Bradley
    Bradley says:

    IDK, in mid to smaller size companies it’s still pretty paternalistic. They say what you do and you do it. But I guess this is about future leaders, if we ever get any. The leaders of today strike me as a bunch of do nothings trying to save their jobs and their friends jobs and not much else. The promised land is working in government where it’s just bureaucracy with no leaders or your own company where it’s up to you for everything. There are bright spots in San Francisco but not much else.

  21. Jogos do Mario
    Jogos do Mario says:

    Hello. My guess is that all governments in the world have one thing in common. The main thing is aiming to fill their own pockets then what will remain and population. Yes I agree with you regarding young people today, no one wants to work all waiting for you to fall from the sky or their parents worked in the past for them. My conclusion is that we expect hard times and only those who have a very good financial situation now will survive.

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