03/07/2013 07:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Leadership: The Killer App That Almost Everyone Overlooks

Being successful in business requires a strange and unique combination of traits and skills that are not often found in one person. For example 'vision' -- the ability to envision a new possibility for the future -- is the stuff of entrepreneurial legend and obviously required. You're not getting anywhere with a fundamentally bad idea or business model.

But without operational discipline -- the ability to actually move projects forward -- any vision is simply a pipe dream. In my experience, true 'visionaries' and hard-core 'operators' rarely come in the same package.

Because a truly successful venture is rarely a one-person show, your ability to get the right people on your team -- and doing their best work -- is possibly the most critical, and often overlooked, skill an entrepreneur can have.

Leadership is the ability to inspire the RIGHT people to devote themselves to advancing your cause (instead of doing the million other things vying for their attention).

Most of us are unconscious about how we show up as leaders. Early on, we learn from our culture -- parents, teachers, early bosses, the TV -- how to lead and then we play that out in our lives and businesses. Unfortunately, it takes just a moment of reflection (think about the office, or the U.S. Congress) to realize that we're not exactly surrounded by great examples of leadership worth emulating.

So, it's valuable to spend some time considering this unique skill called 'leadership.'

Instead of starting with the question 'how do I become a good leader?' let's flip the question and ask 'why do people follow?' Though seeing yourself in the examples below, I think you'll see where we could all take it up a notch or two.

Here's how I see it: There are six reasons people follow and some are much better than others, as you'll see.


At the very bottom, there's domination. People follow these leaders because they're afraid to get their butts kicked. This is really natural: the biggest, meanest ape in the group is the leader.

Next, there's rank. People follow those with rank to avoid a different kind of pain. You pull over when you see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror to avoid getting arrested. People do what their jerk-boss tells them to do to avoid losing their job, because jerk-boss has rank.

The relationship here, between leader and follower, is about fear and survival. While it's true that this kind of leader gets followers to do what they're told, the downside is that as soon as these followers possibly can, they run. They're taking that job offer from your competitor, and they may even be taking your customer list with them on the way out the door.

The next level is expertise. Followers here are choosing who to follow based on the perceived skills of the leader. Think about doctors, lawyers, or teachers. You are willing to take a little blue pill -- which totally might kill you -- if the guy in the white coat says so, because you are deferring to his expertise and you want to get well.

The next level is power. This is following because someone has social power or status or pull over you. Think about venture capitalists or politicians or important business leaders.

The relationship here is different. You don't follow because you're scared, you follow because you want something. The relationship is about 'what will the leader do for me?' Maybe you're looking for renewed health, a paycheck, a good grade, an investment in your business or an important introduction.

This is certainly better than dominating your followers because they're not likely to run at the first opportunity. However, they're also not likely to stick around once you don't have anything to offer. What if your business hits a rough patch? Will your team really stick it out with you?

The next level is where things change dramatically and it's called 'mission.'

Followers here are choosing to follow because they see that the leader is on a mission -- an important cause that's worth supporting -- and they see that they can make a difference. It might be a humanitarian cause or some outrageous and inspiring goal. For example, we don't think of ourselves as a software company; our mission is to support entrepreneurs in delivering their value to the world by removing the burden of technology and automating their business. When you get to see the difference we're making for our clients and their families and employees, it's a moving, inspiring project.

When you're on a mission, the relationship between leader and follower is transformed. Instead of asking 'what can the leader do for me?' people are asking the opposite: 'What can I do for you?' This is a dramatic shift.

Plus, the best people -- the ones you want on your team -- are unwilling to have these other kinds of relationships. The best people don't work for jerks, at least not for long. The best people want to make a difference on a mission they are inspired by. They'll stick with you when times get tough. They'll stay late and give you their best work. They'll refer their friends to join the cause.

Final level of leadership is called 'role model.' Here we're talking about Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. or a guru or other role model. People follow these leaders because they see an opportunity not only to make a difference in the world, but to be a better person.

Being a role model is about who you are and how you live your life. To create this kind of relationship, you have to actually BE the kind of person that others would like to be. I don't mean rich. I mean to be a person of integrity who can tell the truth and who cares more for the people around them and the mission they're on than they do for getting more for themselves or being acknowledged personally.

The upside to creating this kind of relationship is that people will become deeply devoted to supporting your cause. They're not leaving when someone offers them another job for more money. They're with you for the long haul, and they're giving their best.

Where do you fall in your leadership? How would your team members rate you?

When you're in business, you are only as strong as your team's ability and willingness to perform. Gathering amazing people and getting them to do their best work is one of your most critical points of leverage, and your skills as a leader will determine your ceiling.

Find and articulate your mission, then demonstrate integrity and inspire your team for the win.