Leadership’s Most Important Secret

by Tom Koulopoulos

This is not your average story about business leadership. But it illustrates one of the crucial concepts every truly great leader knows.

Leadership is not a title, it is a conscious choice.

For those of us who are founders and entrepreneurs that choice comes in the form of leading a business, for others it comes in leading the charge for a just cause, for one boy that choice came in the horrifying events that unfolded in Peshawar a few years ago.

He was one of the more than 132 children who were killed by the cowards who rampaged the Peshawar military school. Please let’s not even call them terrorists, as though they were warriors to whom we must bestow a title of some sort. They are deserving of no other label than cowards.

Like so many at the end of 2014, I was reading the horrifying accounts of Peshawar, seeking to find some shred of meaning in what can only be described as pure evil. While stories of courage and bravery will certainly come out over time, an early first hand account, reported in the International Business Times by an aid worker who helped the Peshawar victims and their families, touched me deeply. It described how when the cowardice arrived at the door of one of the school’s classrooms a young student defiantly pushed the gunman away to protect his classmates. An act of unimaginable courage and leadership. The boy was shot and later died at a local hospital. His last words to his father, “I saved my class.”

We have no concept of the fear that was going through this young man’s mind in that moment. But what we do know is that he did not hesitate, his objective was clear, and his purpose was undaunted.

It’s hard to imagine such incredible courage and sense of purpose from a child in the face of such unspeakable horror; it tears at our heart as it reminds us all that the potential for courage and leadership can be found in even the darkest, most depraved places and times.

The tragedy of Peshawar is light years removed from the day-to-day of your organization. I’m uneasy making any remotely credible comparison between the two scenarios. You and I are not facing armed gunmen and suicide bombers. Yet, I cannot help but be deeply moved by the powerful lesson of this young man’s choice.

You have been called to lead. You impact people’s lives. Your vision offers the promise of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. Your actions have the potential to inspire. People’s well being hinges on their perception of you. So, be honest with yourself, have you made the choice to lead?

Years ago I took part in a trip to India to welcome a company we had just acquired. During one of the on-boarding events the US leadership team was answering questions from several hundred of our new Indian associates, when a young man asked me to describe the difference between a manager and a leader. I repeated something the late Peter Drucker once told me.

“A leader is someone you choose to follow; a manager you have to follow.”

The entire room stood up to applaud. I was a bit dumbfounded by the response until an Indian colleague told me, “What you just did is give them a choice to not only follow but to lead.”

Drucker’s words have always resonated in my mind. As a leader you must constantly ask yourself, “What choices did I make today to deserve loyalty, to nurture trust, and to inspire someone to follow my vision?”

Whatever the answers, I have no illusions that my own greatest efforts and accomplishments pale in comparison when held up to the leadership benchmark of one young boy’s courageous stand against evil; a tragic and stark reminder for us all that leadership is always a choice.

This article was originally published on Inc.

image credit: bigstockphoto.com

Click here to take the Free Innovation Audit

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

One comment

Leave a Reply