How Great Leaders Change Lives

First published on 4th April 2017

Modern leadership is hugely different to our approaches of the past. It requires us to get out of our old mindset of what a good day at work looks like and develop new habits. It asks us to show up each day and put our people first. To genuinely and deeply believe: ‘Growing my people is what I get paid for’.

So… let’s pause, and think about this for a moment. Forgetting the practicalities of how easy or hard this is to do right now, ask yourself – Do I believe this is how I would like to be leading?

I think for most of us, we know deep down – instinctively, as well as logically –  that not only does leading this way help people. Not only does it create stronger results. But it’s a better reason to get out of bed in the morning…

Great leaders can change lives.


The History

In the summer of 1899 in Detroit, Michigan, a young engineer named Henry Ford resigned from his job at the Edison Illuminating Company where he had been responsible for keeping the city’s electricity flowing, to start a business creating the horseless carriages he had spent the last decade designing, testing and building. The Detroit Automobile Company he founded with the support of a group of investors was one of 60 aspiring car makers in America at the time and it struggled to keep up with the stiff competition. After two collapsed companies Ford put all of his energy into a last ditch, third effort. The Ford Motor Company rolled out its first car, the Model A, that July.

Among many other things, the Ford Motor Company made Henry famous for bringing mass production and efficiency to manufacturing. His obsession with process and his dictatorial-style of management meant he had a hand in most major decisions; it is even said that he checked up on his people’s activities outside of work. It was clear at the Ford motor company… there was one man in control.

At the start of the twentieth century, new large organisations like Ford were springing up in greater numbers – the modern corporation was born. Needing to find a management structure for these bigger scale operations they looked to what they knew: the industrial revolution and the army. And their command-and-control structures became the model for the men who were putting together these new organisations.

So… corporate business was originally conceived as a top-down hierarchy. That’s our history, that’s our tradition, that’s the style most leaders learned from their leaders. It worked then. It called in a new era of efficiency and economy. But this style of leadership is now failing us badly in meeting the needs of the modern world and the modern worker.

Contemporary organisations today value people’s heads and hearts, not just their hands. They know work should be a place that empowers us to make the most of our skills and our potential. They understand that Engagement is essential, and Engagement is an emotion.

Research tells us that at work, the single biggest driver of this emotion is the way we are led by our direct line manager. It’s not about structures or rolled out company programmes; it’s about that human relationship, and whether we believe our leader genuinely cares for us and is coming to work every day to help us become better, happier, more successful people.

The Science

In the early 1960s Harvard did a study where they tracked students coming out of Harvard over a 40 year career. They wanted to show a correlation between how well they did at Harvard and how well they went on to do in the rest of their career.

And guess what they found?

There was no correlation. How well you’d done at Harvard had no effect on how well you would go on to do in the rest of your career. Once you were at Harvard you were smart enough. It was not IQ that was going to make a difference to your future success; it was something else.

In 1995, the psychologist Daniel Goleman released a now famous book called Emotional Intelligence. For the first time he was able to prove what people had long since suspected. He showed that only 25% of our career success comes from how smart we are and our technical capability. The remaining 75% of our career success is driven by our ability to manage ourselves, our moods and emotions, and our ability to manage our interactions and relationships with other people… He called this ability Emotional Intelligence.

As leaders, one of our greatest opportunities is to become brilliant at developing this 75% in the people around us.

The Future

Leadership is a choice. A choice to serve our people, to dedicate our skills and time to helping them be more fulfilled, more successful and more engaged every day.

People want to follow those leaders who serve them and not themselves. When we feel like someone has sacrificed for us, believes in us and is on our side we want to prove to them that their sacrifice was worth it. It’s not about ‘being in charge’, it’s about taking care of those in your charge.

When leaders shift their thinking and see that their jobs are just as much about freeing the greatness in their people as they are about getting all their stuff done, remarkable things can happen.

People go from feeling enrolled, where they just show up to get through the day, to engaged, where they are loving it. Intrinsically motivated to give their best because they know that they are somewhere where they are cared about and can make a difference.