“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” implored John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961.
This is the irony of being a good leader and of great leadership. The truly effective and inspiring leaders aren’t actually driven to lead people; they are driven to serve them. It is this subtle twist of logic that earns a good leader the loyalty and respect of those who ultimately serve them back. For a leader to be a leader, they need a following. And why should any individual want to follow another individual unless they feel that person will look out for them and their interests?
If we want to be good leaders, it is our job to help the people we lead or work with, be good at their jobs. This doesn’t mean doing their work for them; it means we help them get the resources, the information and the support they need to perform at their natural best. It also means watching their backs and helping them fix mistakes when they make them (or support them to fix their own mistakes and try again). The more we do that, the more we will earn their trust so that when we need them to go the extra mile, they will … gladly. Not because we’re their boss, but because they respect and trust us.
Leadership is as much about environment as it is about practice. People should generally feel that we’re there to help them be the best version of themselves. A good leader builds a culture of service (i.e. when someone asks for help or reveals that they don’t know something, others rush to support them). A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done and to succeed beyond what they thought possible.