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Copycat Leaders

The latest news from the USA courts is that America’s giants in mobile technology has agreed to attend mediation ahead of their court battle over smart phone patents. They are locking horns in a battle that ultimately is about global supremacy in the mobile device market. However the really sad part of this news story is not about legal patents it’s that if their claims are true then many of the apparent innovators of the twenty first century are not inventors and creators they are copycats taking short cuts and replacing real innovation with copying and improving existing ideas.

I fear that just like technology, successful leadership is being treated in exactly the same way. Success is being dismantled and reassembled in the hope that a similar outcome will be achieved by the copier.  Following the sad death of Steve Jobs his biography has become the next victim of this strange phenomenon. What should have been a historical record of the birth of a great twentieth century organisation has become a recipe book on how to copy a great leader.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not against reading about what great leaders have done in the past. There is plenty that we can learn from those who came before us. However there is a real danger we have become a generation of “copycat” leaders shifting our focus from learning what the experiences of others might teach us to simply copying what others have done in the hope we will get the same result.

Jiddu Krishnamurti warned us when he said:

“Do not repeat after me words that you do not understand. Do not merely put on a mask of my ideas, for it will be an illusion and you will thereby deceive yourself.”

I recently put “How to become a great leader” into my internet search engine and was saddened to see four hundred and fifty-five million sites. Each one trying to convince the internet surfer that it knows the secrets that have made others great, and that if only we copy what others did, we will be guaranteed to be great leaders too.

I accept one of the best ways to develop in your leadership is to learn from other leaders, but I am also clear that one of the worst things any hopeful apprentice leader can do is to short-circuit the learning experience by replacing hard work with simply copying what other great leaders have already done. Mimic Managers have only one certain outcome – short term shallow success followed by bitter failure. So how can you avoid falling into the copy-cat leadership trap? My advice is to always ensure you focus on these three key actions.

1. All questions should begin with WHY not HOW.
Asking “how” questions produces a response that tells you of another’s technique but it tells you nothing about their drive, motivation, values or behaviours – which are the key to finding your own leadership style.

Why does that leader bring so much energy to his work?
Why does that leader pour so much of himself into his work?
Why does that leader focus on developing their team?

2. Set your goal to be the best you can be not what someone else is already.
We all have passion, dreams, skills and capacities and these should determine your goals and aspirations. You can learn from watching great leaders but your goal should not be to become some hybrid of a previous idol. Always learn from the leaders you most admire, but continually check the bathroom mirror to ensure you’re not merely copying them. The goal must be to develop into the leader you are uniquely designed to be.

3. Track great leaders journeys not just their results.
All too often prospective leaders desire only the benefits of leadership without realising that the seemingly idyllic leadership lifestyle has been achieved only after a great deal of hard work, challenge and persistence. Whilst the attraction of media attention, recognition and power may inspire future leaders it will be the ability to endure years of burnout that will determine real success. The real lessons for prospective leaders having studied the failures and grueling experiences of successful leaders is that the journey will not only be long and hard and it will also be classroom where lessons are learned that will ultimately determine the type of leader you will become will become.

“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble”

Samuel Johnson

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