Who are you that their eyes are not shining?

Not all of us are born leaders. Years ago I had a CEO who's favourite saying was "I need to calibrate you." I'm still somewhat at a loss for what exactly that meant, but I think it was something along the lines of creating a shared understanding of what we were doing and where we were heading.

He was not born a great leader. His attempts at "calibrating" his team was his way of creating alignment, getting everyone pointed in the same direction. As well-intentioned as "calibrating" his team was, it came across as artificial, something that we were expected to understand but frankly, never quite got.

The unexpected leader

In the course of your life you will find yourself placed in a position of leadership. Sometimes it was something that you were actively chasing. Sometimes it is something quite unexpected. And sometimes it is something you were quietly hoping for but you never had the courage to admit it to others.

And then, when you're in the position of leadership, doubt sets in. You now not only have to do your job, you have to lead a team of people to a common goal. You have to motivate, clarify, sort out squabbles and at all times seem as if you know what you're doing.

But we don't always know what we're doing.

All leaders - irrespective of how confident they look - have self-doubt.

It's normal. When you're new at something you are - by definition - not an expert at it. And leadership is no different. Fortunately there are lots of ways you can learn about leadership. Books, videos, talks, mentors, friends… The list goes on.

But there is one fundamental thing you can do to become a better leader.

How to become a conductor

Benjamin Zander is a famous conductor. At the time of writing, he conducts the Boston Philharmonic, and he is well known not just for the music he leads his orchestra to produce, but also for his captivating and energising talks.

One of my favourite quotes from Zander goes as follows:

A conductor is the most powerful member of an orchestra, yet he (or she) does not make a sound. He depends on his power to make other people powerful.

And that is the definition of a leader. You are in a position of power - but you become a leader when you use that power to make other people powerful.

Becoming a great leader is as much about your mindset as it is about your skills or charisma. If you adopt a mindset of "I have to whip these people into shape", you are adopting a mindset of adversity with your team. You have to "whip" people "into shape". You're setting the stage for confrontation, not for making something great together.

Michele Thomas was a polyglot linguist. His unique methods of teaching languages started with a simple rule: You do not have to remember anything. If you don't remember, it is not your fault - it is the fault of your teacher. This mindset was how he approached his teaching, and the same mindset delivered unprecedented language skills even in language-challenged students.

So here's the mindset you should cultivate to grow into a great leader. It comes from one of Benjamin Zander's talks:

It's one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he's leading to realise whatever he's dreaming.

There it is. You have to lead from a position of trust that the people you're leading are up to the task. If they're not getting there you first need to look at yourself and look for where you're going wrong. Because everyone has the capacity for greatness in their own way. Your job as a leader is to unlock that capacity.

In the same talk, Zander also says: My job is to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it.

That's the mark of a true leader - to awaken the possibility in others.

Are their eyes shining?

The most fundamental lesson I learnt as a parent was also summed up by Benjamin Zander:

If their eyes are not shining, you have to ask yourself "who am I being that their eyes are not shining?"

You can ask this question of yourself as a parent, spouse, partner, friend or leader. If their eyes are not shining, who are you being to take that shine away? And no, it's not always your fault, but a great leader will always look for where they can get better before they start thinking about whipping people into shape.

Watch the talk by Benjamin Zander here.

And go make their eyes shine.

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