Beyond the Leadership Listicle

Can we move beyond the Leadership Listicle?   Can we admit that there are more (or less) than “Seven Ways to Unleash Potential”, “Five Keys to Innovation”, “Ten Skills a Leader Must Have”?  If we were concert pianists, would we be reading “The Eight Critical Attributes Every Concert Pianist Must Strive For?”.   Maybe we would.  I doubt it (any concert pianists out there are more than welcome to chime in).

Leadership, at its best, is a fine, subtle art. A mix of intentions, craft, intuition, determination, and a deep knowledge of human interaction.   Leadership, at its best, brings out what is most human in all of us – the desire, and the means, to make the world a different place.  Leadership, at its best, melds our finest qualities – community, creativity, insight, to name a few (a list of three) – to have us live and work above ourselves, to build a momentum, a wave, an energy of change.

We know it when we see it.  We know it when we feel it.  If we are engaged in any kind of enterprise with other people, we look for it, need it, require it.

Developing leadership is a chemical brew of desire, talent and practice, endless practice – yes, much like becoming a concert pianist (or anything else at a high level, in fact). It is complex by its very nature: it is an art entirely about, and defined by, people.  And if there’s one thing we know for certain about people, it’s that they are deeply complicated, enmeshed with each other, with their pasts, with their chemistry and with the world around them, which is, itself, fluid, endlessly deep and ever changing.

So I understand the attraction of the Leadership Listicle (and I have, in unguarded moments, written them myself).   The LL promises a quick end-around to learning this subtle art.  It suggests that after we have skimmed the Seven Secrets, or Ten Steps, we will be closer to mastery, nearer to our goal of inspiring people to create change.  We scan the LL over coffee, perhaps pick up one or two points that we’ll try and remember, and feel better about how the day, or the week, might go.

The Listicle has its place in internet culture for a reason (“Ten Reasons Why Our Brain Loves Lists”): the title (“X Things That Y”) tells us that it’s finite, that our attention will only be diverted temporarily, and we can move along – to Facebook, or the news or the tweets of celebrities (and let’s not forget the Stepchild of the Leadership Listicle: the Leadership Tweet – yes, I’m as guilty as anybody).

Reading The Listicle, we get a quick hit, a bump, not of knowledge exactly, but of possibility.  Perhaps the Second Key Insight (“speaking with an authentic voice helps motivate your team”, just to make one up at random – although it happens to be true), will move us along today, will edge us forward, will help us with a meeting, or a presentation, or a phonecall.

But this is not the route to mastery (or the way to get to Carnegie Hall, as the ancient joke has it).  Mastery is the result of deep, repeated practice, always.  It comes from a focussed attention on what is known and what is unknown, a constant desire to move beyond a comfortable level of skill, and a humble respect for learning – for what the circumstances, the failures, the successes are telling us.  It comes from teachers, mentors and colleagues.  It comes from time, well spent and well used.

Too mystical?  Too hard?   Maybe.  But I’m not the only one saying it.  Everyone from Aristotle (“We are what we repeatedly do…”) to Malcolm Gladwell (one of his many articles on the 10,000 Hour Rule here) emphasize that the route to mastery is repeated, focussed action.

There are no shortcuts.

So what am I suggesting?   Stop writing Listicles?   Well, it couldn’t hurt to have fewer of them, God knows.  Stop reading Listicles?   Not really.  They do no harm, and they often they give us a little shove of motivation or a sly shaft of insight in a tight package we can unwrap in a minute or two, and time is tight these days.  So sure, why not?

What I am suggesting is that to move towards mastery, we must go deeper.  The Leadership Listicle is a distant cousin of “Lose Ten Pounds A Week Without Dieting” scams – the promise of the simple fix, the quick change.  A suggestion that there is some easy secret magic to be learned that will free us from the grind of what is necessary – doing the work.

Those of us who write and teach need to take the time to be expansive, looser, more fundamental.  Those of us who read and learn need to expect to spend longer than a minute or two on getting direction.  We need to do the work, to be honest about what’s working in ourselves and what isn’t, and to be determined to move beyond the comfortable now.

Leadership is a human practice.  An amalgam of emotion, poetry, insight, determination, creativity, rationality, bravery (yes, you can make your own list!).   It is a set of skills that match the deep, rich chemical complexity of human spirit with the endlessly shifting energies of the reality we inhabit.

Leadership moves people to change the world. A Leadership List is at best a hint, a wisp of the effort needed, and the magic generated by mastery of the art.


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