Much has been written about becoming an effective leader. I’ve even contributed a few thousand pages to the digital and paper hurricane on the topic. Whether looking for common sense tools or searching for how to create core competencies, there is an unending safari in search of guidance on the development and execution of fundamental leadership skills. I’ve benefited greatly from the wise counsel of Leadership Sherpas and from unwise bumbling examples of The Powerfully Incompetent over the years. I’m grateful. Thank you, regardless of the category to which you belong.
On my cross-country and cross-discipline leadership safaris, I’ve found and studied the rarest kind of leader: the leader that leads other strong, successful leaders of leaders. “Leaders of leaders of leaders” are rare, difficult to find, and more difficult to study. The characteristics that make them effective also make them difficult to spot in an overcrowded, noisy world. Like an elusive tiger in the wild, when I’ve stumbled across them, they enthrall. Their power and grace are a thing of beauty surpassed only by the vast impact, often uncredited, that follows in their path.
Leaders (let’s call them L-1s) create clarity and manage alignment among committed, capable and engaged teams. They are results oriented. Nothing of significance occurs without them. Nothing improves, nothing changes unless we have leaders.
Leaders of Leaders (L-2s) inspire, instruct, and create complex interlocking strategies multiplying impact across robust organizations, professions or industries. They are the ones who take a concept in an existing market or culture and align groups with complementary interests to make the ideas better. Often, much better.
Leaders of Leaders of Leaders (I know, awkward but let’s call them L-3s) are a different breed altogether.
They invent new worlds and shift old ones. Their impact crosses generations. They stand at the crossroads of history because they created them.
Societies at large, and individuals, in particular, owe the quality of life they enjoy largely to these invisible L-3s. We need them but, like the elusive creature deep in an ecosystem around which other species pivot, they are difficult to find and more difficult to study.
In our treks across the jungles of society, we’ve begun to identify a few of their characteristics. So, in honor of their profound impact, and because of their impressive beauty, I’m sharing what we’ve found:
L-3s are particularly comfortable in the company of strong leaders with large personalities and defined visions. They rarely feel out of place in the company of Titans. They authentically and affectionately communicate the truth mostly in the form of questions. They are energized by complexity, clashing strategies, intense passions and never feel the need to be seen as powerful, right or important.
These tigers are, like most leaders, capable of seeing the big picture but are especially, even uniquely capable of sliding that big picture into the future. They know how to time-travel with complexity. They don’t predict the future as much as imagine it in great detail, with Technicolor brilliance. And, they are compelled by what “could be.” And they set about creating it.
What others see as threats, they see as an opportunity. This includes financial challenges, tectonic cultural shifts, and even threatening personalities. They have high “fight” responses but lack the anger, bitterness and kill-or-be-killed motives when leaning into difficulty. Life is not a war but a sport. Life does not happen to them but through them.
They are intensely unselfish. Their own needs simply never occur to them. They sometimes seem personally rumpled as they focus on engaging, empowering, correcting, and multiplying the effectiveness of other Leaders (1s and 2s). With pure motive they cheer, clap, and slap other high impact leaders who invite them to do it again.
They are not as much “behind the scenes” as ahead of the scenes, even creating the scenes in which others will star. They are the Preamble to Greatness.
They are acutely aware of relationship and causal connections to the third and fourth degree. Every relationship represents other very real relationships and they move among the tight and loosely connected web of people and perspectives with gentile, and only rarely severe, gestures. They are aware of the reverberated impacts of action (or inaction) and carefully invite others to see what they see.
They think of themselves as responsible. As stewards. They are voraciously curious and laugh with giddy joy at regular discoveries. Every conversation, every email, every waking moment is infused with attentive humble curiosity.
They know how to lose so that others can win. And win big. They shun the spotlight, not from a sense of false humility, but because they deeply admire those whose hands are on the tools, mops, and machines of society. Their anger, a rare thing, is calculated and white-hot, focused only on injustice. It is reserved for Leaders (L-1s, and L-2s) who squander the passion of those under their stewardship.
They candidly dare others to be great. They are tireless. In every aspect of their life, their energy is boundless. They are utterly reliable. In my encounters with these amazing people, I’ve never seen them drop even the smallest ball. Phone calls are returned, emails handled, bills paid, apologies made, gratitude felt and expressed. Relentlessly. They make promises carefully and fulfill them without fail. They get to “yes” quickly, regardless of the complexity of the challenge.
Their deepest joy in life arises from contending with the discomfort created by gaps between grand vision and granular reality; by marshaling and focusing impossibly difficult personalities with selfish clutches on resources; by creating the stage on which the future actors (L-1s and L-2s) will star in yet-to-be-written plays.
It’s likely that you have seen one of these people in your life. Perhaps two. When I meet them, I’m in quiet awe of their impact. I’m most intrigued by their assumptions and mental models. I’m curious about what they think is true and True. In my experience, they freely share. So, if you know one of these Mentors of the Mighty, take time to slow down and admire as I’ve done. The time with them leaves me slightly more curious, slightly more humble, significantly more courageous and inspired.