What comes to mind when you think of a leader? 

You may imagine someone ambitious, authoritative, and popular — even aggressive or famous. 

If any of these traits came to mind, you’re not alone. 

The noise of the popular culture has frequently conflated leadership with celebrity, confidence with bravado, and respect with self-aggrandizement. The claim goes: if you don’t put your individual greatness first, then no one will respect you. 

You have been led to believe that social media “likes” equate impact.

This is false. 

I recently stumbled upon an article in a respected publication on “how to” be seen as a true leader. While the article itself had some useful information, the very premise was problematic. 

True leaders don’t worry about being seen a certain way; they’re too busy leading. 

The article was shared 1,000s of times. 

Yet, this mindset doesn’t develop leaders. 

Far from it! It creates narcissists who shift their focus from solving problems and leading people to merely performing “leadership”.

This mentality also creates an organizational culture that nurtures “a cult of personality,” groupthink, and an environment that stunts innovation, collaboration, and individual contribution. No wonder only about 35% of workers in the United States feel engaged in their work. (Gallup, 2019) 

As leaders, we have the responsibility to do something about this low level of engagement. 

Leadership has never been about “I” or “Me” but about “Us,”We” and “Them”. 

Trying to be a leader by focusing on garnering attention is a recipe for disaster. 

Consider this scenario.

You and your team have recently finished working on a massive project. You feel extremely proud. 

When the time comes to celebrate this accomplishment, however, your boss offers a lukewarm praise of your team while taking all the credit. She amplifies “her team” and “her team’s accomplishments” instead of highlighting the unique contribution of the teammates.

How frustrating and demoralizing is that? 

If we are honest, I am sure we all have a story like this one. 

Bad leadership is a lot more common than many care to admit. 

If you choose to focus on yourself, you are going to lose respect and trust of your team, and will gain their resentment. And smart people will see right through you. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s common to get caught up in all the prestige and glamour that comes when you are elevated to a visible leadership position. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting attention; the trouble is when you feel you “need” it in order to feel good about yourself.

Not only is this a sign of low self-esteem, but whether you consciously or unconsciously use status as a metric for your success as a leader, you’ll trade results for temporary “feel good” experience.  

You can’t achieve collective results if you’re blinded by and solely focused on your own perceived benefit. 

What’s an effective leader then? 

One great explanation comes from the legendary Jim Collins and the idea of Level 5 leadership

Level 5 individuals lead through: 

  • Humility
  • Discipline
  • Effective personal communication
  • Ambitiousness for a cause
  • By taking responsibility
  • Passion for their team and company 

None of these traits have anything to do with the attention that you get for being a leader. 

Ironically, many of the individuals in Jim’s leadership study who are deemed as level 5 leaders are more often “reserved, quiet and even shy.” 

Folks like Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth I, Mahatma Gandhi, Katherine Graham, Abraham Lincoln, Katherine Johnson, and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind. 

The essence of Level 5 Leadership is to be relentlessly focused on the welfare, progress, and achievement of the team. 

Although it’s counterintuitive, it’s actually easier and less emotionally taxing — and significantly more rewarding — to focus on others. 

Try this: consider the people on your team as if they were in your care and then, every day, focus on how much value you give to them, their ability to be successful, and the collective results. 

For example, you could make it a point to: 

  • Be vulnerable with your team and encourage them to do the same. 
  • Create a safe and truly inclusive environment. 
  • Offer clear and direct feedback, practice empathy, celebrate successes, and empower people to quickly bounce back after failures. 
  • Allow your people to make mistakes, to take risks, and fail. 
  • Encourage them to come up with a lot of bad ideas — it’s after 20 bad ones, that a good one usually breaks through.
  • “Who” comes first, then “what” — get the right people on the bus and give them work they can be good at and find meaningful, instead of mindlessly assigning tasks to the first person you think off.
  • Understand how your people work, when and what they’re best at, and do all you can to be flexible and match the work and work hours to their natural inclinations. 

When you make providing value to others a non-negotiable, you’re automatically increasing your team’s chances of success. 

It’s not about you, and never will be. 

Leadership, by definition, means that you see a new path forward that brings benefit to those who have entrusted you with their wellbeing. You cannot get there if all you’re thinking is how they, and others, see you. 

If you want to make a lasting and unforgotten mark as a leader, stop trying to “be seen” as a leader. Be one.