what is a leader

In life, we all look to leaders.

Some people are natural leaders - they have an ineffable quality that people ascribe t them that makes them followable.

Think of ‘the captain class’ - the kid that gets made captain just because. Think of great captains in sport, how they seem statesmanlike and for the most part, serene, unaffected by changing circumstance.

It’s part of the reason I’m not sure England can win a rugby World Cup with Owen Farrell as a captain - he consistently fails to remain above the changing events on the field. Every World Cup winning team has had a calm, authoritative leader at the helm. This aside, I think England can win it and I haven't felt like that since 2003.

Anyway, what makes a leader?

A leader has to be impressive - they’re not necessarily the most talented participant but they have something that sets them apart from a group.

In management, there is a concept of the ‘undefended leader’ - this is where who you are and what you present to your world are close together, perhaps even totally the same. The world doesn’t necessarily mean outside of your team environment but in front of the people you lead, you are who you say you are. A show of vulnerability and relatability means that a they trust you and will follow you.

Another characteristic is consistency. According to Sir Alex Ferguson

“When you are consistent, people who work for you know who you are. When someone changes all the time, it creates a sort of confusion in the camp, people saying yesterday he was wanting to go to the moon, now he wants to go to Mars. If you keep changing, I think it confuses your people.”

A lack of consistency mens that you are ‘all things to all men’, like Shakepseare’s Iago. Someone who stands for nothing, who is happy to present anything to anyone in order to get what they want, is someone that cannot be trusted. Although identity is fluid and multifaceted, if you can shed your skin so easily, change your direction and beliefs act the drop of a hat, then you eventually stand for nothing and become, oddly, nothing.

I read a great interview with the historical fiction author Robert Harris over the weekend where he lamented the lack of people of quality and of substance in our public leaders today. He said that our former leaders were people of variety and substance while today,

“It is fascinating that people of that quality and drive and sense of history probably wouldn’t go near it now.”

Interestingly he points to the need for political leaders to retain a sense of self away from their work. Politics as performance. You need to present a real self to your team but perform to the public in a wider sense. Think how many world leaders have a sense of spectacle and performance. Johnson, Trump, Putin, Macron - they all know the value of playing a part, Trump more than anyone. Harris mentions Tony Blair:

“The thing about Blair, what made him impressive, was that the public him was separate from the real him. The most successful politicians are the ones that distance this artificial public creation from their own person.”

Even if you technically serve the people, there needs to be an idea of you that people can get behind. Think of Ferguson raging in press conferences to distract from the players’ performances or in politics, the usual railing against immigrants to distract from actual policy.

Harris said that Theresa May suffered from her “lack of performance […] There was a lack of largeness of character that is necessary if you are going to get to the very top.”

You need to create a cult of personality, like a dictator, if you want to really succeed at the highest level. Think of sport with the glorification of the manager, even as results show that whichever team spends the most on player salaries wins most years.

In this respect, Naval Ravikant has an apt comparison:

"Politics is sports writ large — pick a side, rally the tribe, exchange stories confirming bias, hurl insults and threats at the other side."

To bring it back to Shakespeare, ‘all the world’s a stage’ - to lead, you need to be yourself to your team and a personality to the world.

Ben Mercer