Debunking the myth of the Lonesome Leader and Genius

Recently I had a discussion with a friend who is a director at a non-governmental organisation about how it is being a leader. He noted that leadership is so hard and that he feels lonely in doing his tasks, and how he has to constantly make sure things are going well. While I listened to him, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the answer and it made me feel that thing we call ‘gut’ feeling when we have a hunch about something. My hunch was really about why leaders should rarely be lonely because if you are leading ‘right’, then you should have a team of engaged people around you. However, many of us can relate to my friend’s story about loneliness and making hard choices and driving change in an environment where people are not engaged and you end up doing the extra miles.

But the same is said about great scientists and artists as well: the one genius arises amidst the masses and discovers something that no one knew before. There is only one caveat in this view: Ideas rarely live by themselves in an empty space from which one genius plucks them from and presents them to others. As noted in a recent piece in Stanford Business, Stefano Zenios notes that “Great ideas — those that solve a problem in a unique way — usually happen when two old ideas meet together for the first time. Great ideas are not new ideas. They are usually a combination of existing ideas” . This is as true in science as it is in design: Thomas Kuhn already noted that science progresses through ideas that are developed over time, and that often new scientists entering a discipline are the ones who come up with innovation because they notice something in the existing ideas and processes, which need tweaking.

The perception of a Lone Leader or Lone Genius therefore doesn’t really hold. This became even more clear to me listening recently to Jeff Coins talking with Ryan Hawk on the Learning Leader podcast episode 227 where Jeff shared insights on his latest book “How to be a Thriving Artist: Real Artists Don’t Starve). What really stayed with me was the notion how great artists like Leonardo da Vinci had a mentor and how he was able to learn painting techniques from someone else, and how his work was supported by others financially. Jeff himself confessed to having several mentors who have greatly helped him in his writing career.

Yet, somehow we are expected to go out there and do it on our own, build our own business and spent all our savings, time and energy just carving out a space that is “us” and then become The Great. And granted, hard work is required and we have to take ownership of the process. But often for other people two things remain invisible: our support crew (family, mentors) and the hard work we put in in pursuing something we believe in.

Coming back to my friend’s comments about feeling alone, I’ve been inspired recently by Lis Wiseman’s book “Multipliers” where she argues that leadership is about empowering others to increase their intelligence and leadership skills. I am not saying that leading is not hard, I doubt any of the Multipliers just whistle happily throughout their day and are not burdened by many things. But it is about being consistent in the way you empower others and truly try to open up opportunities for others. I think also that if we keep accepting leadership as being a lonesome position, those among us who aspire for leadership might back off and think they don’t have it in themselves to lead. Or maybe they just don’t want to be lonely.