What Defines A Real Leader?

What makes a great leader?

David Foster Wallace sums it up beautifully in the essay “Suck It Up” from Consider The Lobster.

“It is all but impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are difficult to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time—as in “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc.—and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t boring at all; in fact he’s the opposite of boring.


Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and noncliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a boss in some summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.


This passage can be both inspiring and overwhelming.

There are many people and organisations inviting us to ‘follow’ them, and often we do because we find them mildly entertaining or we are hoping for them to follow us on return. The blind leading the blind.

Instead of asking to be followed, how can we show up and lead?

The fearful voice inside us often interrupts.

“But who am I to lead?”

I’m no …

…Winston Churchill
…Golda Meir
…Martin Luther King
…Brene Brown

There’s no tribe hanging on my every word…

I haven’t been elected, annointed or promoted…

But Wallace reminds us that every single person seeks and is influenced by great leaders.

Each of us has the capacity to be a great leader to a single person.

Begin by identifying someone in your sphere of influence who already looks up to you. Paint the vision of a future full of possibility in which they can see themselves. The exact outcome of the vision doesn’t need to be certain, but the questions your vision answers should certainly be exciting and compelling.

How can you inspire this person to take action on the things they “want to be able to do but usually can’t get (themselves) to do?”

By being someone’s coach, teacher or ‘cool older kid to look up to’, you choose to accept the special authority to lead.

You’re the person they enjoy being around. Your leadership encourages them to feel better about themselves.

As you gain clarity around the vision and can articulate it more clearly you’ll find that others who share your values and ambitions will gravitate towards your leadership. By showing up consistently you become a magnet for your tribe, attracting members and serving as their compass needle.

Look around. Who is waiting for you to level up and lead?

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