7 simple steps to great leadership

“The best leader is one whose existence is barely known by the people.” – Lao Tzu

How do you perceive and embody leadership?

Nelson Mandela said, “A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

What drives the actions of men? What inspires people to follow someone else?  What unites a team, a community, a country? How does someone become a great leader?

Genghis Khan said “Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others.”

To understand the 7 simple steps to great Leadership, let’s look at these two leaders, Nelson Mandela and Genghis Khan.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born in a small village in the Cape Province, in South Africa. A black man born in a country where people with his skin color were considered second class citizens. His start to life was not easy.

He was worn into a line of tribal leaders, with a great grand father who had been King of the Thembu people. His own father was a tribal leader and adviser to the King.

He started his early life herding sheep and cattle. He was afforded an education, expecting to one day also become an adviser to the royal house.

At an early age Mandela was not outspoken against the White minority rule but acknowledged some of the advantages that had come with the European settlement into Southern Africa and the advances it afforded the whole. He was able at a young age to step back and look at a bigger picture.

He was, however, outspoken and had a view on things. Clearly at an early age, the idea of all being equal was a strong theme that pushed him to fight against inequality while studying at school.

Mandela went on to study law, as the only black student at the Wits university in Johannesburg. Obviously facing racism and taunting on a constant basis, the feeling of injustice in equality pushed him to become more and more politicized. He eventually joined the ANC, (the African National Congress) the party he would one day lead in the country’s first democratic elections to become the first black president of South Africa.

At first he advocated boycotts and strikes, but seeing that these made no impact, he began to push for increasing forceful actions to end Apartheid. It was this turn to violence that would lead to his multiple arrests and eventually 27 years in prison.

He spent 18 of those years on the Robben Island Prison, a prison on a small island off the coast of Cape Town. His cell was 8 feet by 7 feet, approximately 5m2.

At Prison Mandela studied Afrikaans, the language of the white minority rule to better understand his enemy and convert them to his cause. He remained convinced that equality was the only destination for South Africa.

  1. Mandela was focused on his end game.  That end game drove him. He didn’t look backwards and only focus on the evils and wrongs that had been committed. He understood intimately that to drive people forward you had to keep focused on the future.
  2. He understood that to succeed you needed to know who you were battling against. You needed to intimately know your competition and your clients.
  3. He understood the power of adapting your leadership style to those around you to ensure your message got through in the right way.
  4. He knew change would not be easy and would be messy.
  5. He was humble in his leadership and he listened intensively to people. He took debate seriously.
  6. He was a role model.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Nelson Mandela

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was born in modern-day northern Mongolia around 1160. He had nothing of a start to life that forebode a great leader and someone who would unite a country and, still today, could be considered the most powerful leader the world has ever known.

At its height the Mongol Empire stretched out from the steppes of central Asia to the Pacific Ocean in the East to the Danube in Europe in the West and down to the shores of the Persian gulf, covering over 9 million square miles (23 million square km), making it the largest contiguous land empire in world history.

Genghis was born the son of a nomadic tribe chief and was shipped off to serve the family of his future bride at age 9. He was meant to marry at age 12. Learning of the death of his father , soon after, he ran back home to claim his heritage as chief of the tribe, but was rejected, probably because he was 9 years old. His family was cast out from the protection of the tribe and lived in poverty for some time.

But something inside the young Khan kept driving him forward. He was focused on recapturing the leadership of his tribe. He must have seen, first hand, how the tribes of Mongolia were split apart and lived in the opposite of unity. There was constant clashes, raids and wars between them.

The young Khan eventually went back, when he was around 16 years old, to the tribe his father had selected for him to marry into. He married, and that gave him his first access to the position of leadership. But he didn’t stop there. He kept growing his influence through alliances.

He also was extremely astute in building loyalty.

  1. He delegated authority based on merit, rather than family ties. This was a massive break from Mongol tradition. He saw that merit and the ability to create success was not and could not be based on favoritism. Merit alone was the greatest source of success.
  2. He created incentives for his teams, by promising them part of the spoils of war. While we could think people are driven only be idealism or the challenge, the monetary portion is definitely not negligible.
  3. When he defeated rivals, he did not drive them away or kill them all. He took the conquered under his protection and they became part of his team.

He also embodied some powerful leadership qualities:

  1. He had a vision and a purpose that he shared with his teams. He never wavered from this vision. His teams were extremely clear on what it was and what the end game was.
  2. He was humble in victory.
  3. He acted in moderation and didn’t live an overtly luxurious life. Everyone participated in the riches of their joint success.
  4. He welcomed diversity and adapted his leadership style to the people he was leading. He did not expect them to adapt to him.
  5. He acted as a role model. He was with his men leading the charge. If they failed, they failed together.

Eventually he became the most powerful man the world has ever known and will, in all likelihood, ever know.

He didn’t learn leadership from someone else. He taught himself. He observed the world around him and saw what worked and what didn’t work and he built his own style of leadership – which was of course extremely effective.

He was pragmatic in his learning, he experimented with approaches and ways of driving to his goal and was quick to abandon a method for another. All of this underpinned by his extreme focus on his goal.

He made himself into the Khan.

The 7 simple steps to great leadership

1. Both these leaders understood that the power to make men move was not by force. 

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” —Jack Welch

“My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.” —General Montgomery

Forcing people to do something only works for a limited period of time. They need to want to do it. To achieve that, they need to know why they are doing it and believe it is important.

Leadership requires lots of time explaining the why behind the actions of your teams. Sometimes it can be simple, other times complex, but you need to find the time to talk about it.

Often if the why doesn’t exist, it means what it being done has no value.

Great leaders take the time to understand what motivates and what can motivate their teams and they use that to drive toward their goal.

2. Both were humble. They were not boisterous leaders, but took a more low-key stance to leadership, positioning themselves on the same level as their teams and ensured that they surrounded themselves with people of merit.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”. —Lao Tzu

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it”. —Theodore Roosevelt

Leadership is not a right. It is not a title. It is a responsibility. It doesn’t make you better than those in your team, or smarter or more entitled.

Leadership requires you to take a position of responsibility and take care of the teams that you have been entrusted to lead. It takes time to get to know people and as a leader you need to take that time.

Leadership doesn’t mean knowing everything. Surround yourself with people of merit who can help the team get better. Strong teams produce strong results and it is the leader that builds the team.

3. Both had a vision and were passionate to achieve that vision. They never wavered from their end game. They spoke about it all the time to ensure everyone understood it.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

“A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.” —John Maxwell

Everyone needs a destination, whether be it when they wake up in the morning to go to work, or when they undertake a new assignment. Teams need a shared vision and goal. It needs to be something that they can all go after together and it needs to remain solid. Of course the ways to get to the destination are numerous and many paths might need to be retraced, but everyone needs to keep being reminded of where they are going.

Great leaders are passionate about their vision and goals, from the Fortune 500 CEO to the accounting manager, we can all have a vision and be passionate about it. We need to have one and we need to get our teams to work to achieve it.

4. Both were active listeners and never believed their way was the only way. They welcomed debate.

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” —Douglas MacArthur

Leadership is not a lonely game. It is best played in a team.

Leadership means understanding you don’t know everything, like the conductor who can’t play every instrument. Leadership is being able to put everything together to make the whole work. You need to listen to the various players and rely on their skills. Listening is the best way to understand different points of views and ways of doing things. Through listening we can discover quicker, more productive ways to get to the same goal.

Leaders welcome diversity of though. They seek it out and they listen. They welcome changes to their journey if it makes sense and if it is a better way.

Leaders don’t lock-down on their position and refuse to take advice.

5. Both acted as role models. They showed everyone what it was to be a great leader and they walked their talk.

“Each person must live their life as a role model for others.” -Rosa Parks

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” -Albert Einstein

To inspire other people, we must represent the type of person they want to become. Being a great leader means embodying the virtues and things you stand for. You can’t say one thing and be another.

Leaders don’t try be role models, they are role models every day.

6. Both adapted their styles to those around them and never expected the opposite.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking

“Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision and change.” – Richard Branson

Leaders mold themselves into the people that follow them. They understand that the best way to capture the hearts and minds of their followers, the best way to motivate them, to inspire them, is to be like them, speak like them and talk to them in a way and a language they best understand.

You don’t win people over in a foreign language and in a style they don’t understand. Be adaptable as you make your way to great leadership.

7. Both ensured they knew their teams, their competitors and their clients intimately.

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” – Sun Tzu

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” -Michael Jordan

“The first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations.” — Roy H. Williams

Knowing your product and knowing your distribution is not enough to leading your company to success. You need to know your competitors so you can understand how to outmaneuver them. You need to know your ultimate client and what they really like or love about your product, to sell more or differently to them. And you need to know your teams, so you can get them to perform at the best of their abilities and help guide them to your goal.

Great leaders don’t sit in their offices reviewing documents and dictating orders. They get out and understand the world around them to better master it.


Leadership is not meant to be easy. Nobody ever said that. It takes time and commitment.

You aren’t born a leader, you make yourself one.


Leave a Reply, Comment or Anything else that comes to mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: