The Highest Type of Leader

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

Image © 2017 Richard McKnight, PhD

Image © 2017 Richard McKnight, PhD

I’ve revised my daily schedule. For years, I’d log on to read the news while sipping my morning Joe. Not anymore. Between the id-driven character in the White House and our pathetically ineffective Congress, I found myself get hopping mad each day before 6 a.m.! No more!

These days, I’m turning to more inspirational readings, most of them about leadership, among them the ancient Tao Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu between 570 and 490 BCE. This is where I found these lines about “the highest type of ruler.” Our political leaders might take notice:

The highest type of [leader] is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

Devotees of Robert Greenleaf's Servant Leadership often quote these lines. Greenleaf’s servant leaders feel impelled to discern what is good for the people and position themselves in service of that, not in service of their own ego.

The idea that the best leaders subordinate their own ego seems to be counter to the American fascination with superstar CEOs and a business culture that says the more money you make and the higher you rise in the hierarchy, the more worthy you are. Yet, as I've written about before (“Are Humble Leaders Good Leaders?”) the very best leaders seem to be quite different. As noted leadership scholar Jim Collins puts it, “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare—and unstoppable.”

The other day, I wondered how this observation lines up with the Korn Ferry leadership potential model. This model, described by KF as “a comprehensive assessment for measuring leadership potential,” is “based on decades of Korn Ferry research and extensive review of academic and business literature,” KF says. In their research, they identified signposts that seemed to indicate the likelihood of future leadership advancement. Their model is pictured below.

The factors on the left do nothing more than bring a potential leader to the zero point of potential; they're crucial but not additive. On the right are the factors that contribute most to the prediction. Thus, if we're to find anything like Collins's humility and fierce resolve, we should look on the right, not the left.

Arguably, humility is a key component of learning if not what KF calls Learning Agility, so this fits. But here is what KF says about Leadership Traits: “Korn Ferry research demonstrates that traits most prevalent at top leadership levels include things like taking charge, having a vision, and being innovative.” Humility? Not so much. Fierce resolve perhaps.

If humility and fierce resolve are the key indicators of the highest type of leader (Collins labels this “Level 5 Leadership,” his highest designation), what do such leaders actually do? One answer comes from a Harvard Business Review article by Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, “The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders.” What they saw repeatedly in their study is that these leaders:

  • Share their mistakes.
  • Engage in dialogues, not debates.
  • Admit they don’t have all the answers.
  • Empower others to lead—and actually become followers at times.

I opened by quoting Lao-Tsu, a great philosopher and leader. I will close by quoting someone who, to the best of my knowledge never led a single person, but whose wisdom seems pertinent on this matter, Helen Keller, who said:

“I long to accomplish a great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

Humble leaders grasp Keller’s point.