Leadership is an elusive thing. At its best, it can almost seem like magic. You know it when you see it. If you’ve experienced great leadership, then you know what a difference it can make.
But what do great leaders do, exactly?
It’s easy to assume that leadership cannot be grasped, because of its mysterious qualities. Either you’re good at it or you’re not, one might think.
The truth is that leadership is a discipline like any other. It demands effort and practice. It can be learned. And it’s more similar to a certain commercial discipline than you’d like to admit.
There are plenty of definitions of leadership, but here’s one that summarizes them:
“The ability to influence other people toward a common direction.”
There are two components to leadership:
1) Influencing other people. This can be through direct influence (using rational arguments, reasoning, and incentive schemes). Or it can be through covert influence (by painting a grand vision, by exploiting status dynamics, or by leading by example).
2) Common direction. This can be a measurable goal or task. It can be an inspiring mission. Or it can be a grand vision of the future.
With this definition, the span of leadership is wide. Many everyday interactions are actually leadership in action.
Getting your group of friends to agree on what restaurant to go to is leadership: you influence the group (your friends) to go in a common direction (the restaurant).
But so is inspiring a national movement to take action against climate change. In this case, there’s a big group, and there’s a big direction.
Both are examples of leadership. The difference lies in the size of the group and the magnitude of the direction.
So leadership is all about influence. And if we really boil it down, leadership is all about sales.
SHOCK. GASP. HORROR.
Yes, sales can have a yucky, icky feel. When we think about sales we think of annoying car salesmen. We think of badgering telemarketers and unethical commission hunters.
But sales is influence. If you sell someone a service, then you have influenced that person to exchange money for your offering.
The only difference between sales and leadership is that the currency of sales is (usually) money. In sales, the exchange of money is what seals the conversion of a prospect into a customer.
The currency of leadership, however, is enrollment. The act of enrolling someone to go in your desired direction is what converts a prospect into a follower.
So if you’re a leader, you need to sell your followers on why they should follow you. There are many ways to do that. You can sell the vision. You can sell the camaraderie and culture. Or you can sell the gold at the end of the rainbow. But at the end of the day, you need to sell yourself.
Selling yourself can be uncomfortable. It means confronting who you are, who you want to be, and your own strengths and insecurities.
In recent times, the concept of leadership has been romanticized. A typical article on the topic will discuss “authentic leadership”, “compassionate leadership,” and “vulnerable leadership.”
Despite the lack of sting, these are all examples of sales and leadership of the highest level. Why?
Because they all lead to influence. An authentic leader is easier to connect to. A compassionate leader is easier to confide in. A vulnerable leader is easier to trust.
If your people trust you, connect with you, and confide in you, then you have gone a long way toward securing their followership. You have influenced them to follow you. You have sold your leadership successfully.
People have needs: everything from basic needs like safety and security; to emotional needs like approval, attention, and affection; to fulfillment needs like self-actualization and self-transcendence. If you understand your followers’ needs, then you can start designing your leadership to deliver what they crave.
You are your leadership tool. To sell it, you need to sell yourself so that it resonates with your followers’ needs.
Let’s not avoid the facts. Leadership is sales. And sales is leadership.
So start asking your people what they need. Start adjusting your leadership to accommodate those needs. And start getting comfortable with the discomfort of selling yourself as a leader.