This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
Becoming a leader is a lot like squeezing toothpaste. You can’t put it back in the tube, but you’re free to let it go down the drain.
Life is a game. Some people are winning the game, and many are losing. Some people play the long game. Most people play the short game. And others don’t even know what game they’re playing. And while everyone is playing some sort of game, it’s your job as a leader to step up and own the game. As a leader, you have to be the game. You have to live the game. Or not at all.
In the last essay, I referred to three types of people along the motivational spectrum: satisfied, hungry, and starving. In a horseshoe effect, satisfied and starving people come from radically different points of view, yet their ends are the same—short-sightedness, instant-gratification, and lack of trust. The sweet spot, the slightly hungry—the one-point underdogs that Bill Walsh talks about, are long-term people who play the long game. They approach work and life not based on immediate outcomes, but on the possibilities of greater mutual returns in the long run. It’s the slightly hungry who are willing to put in the work to achieve the vision you set. They will build lasting relationships. They will do the jobs that most people won’t do. They will follow your judgement, even if they don’t always agree. And when trust builds over time, these disagreements become sources of growth instead of detriment. It is from this place where an organization begins to make a meaningful difference in the world.
In my “Get a Dog” essay, you’ll recall my definition of what the goal of leadership is:
…to move individuals as a cohesive unit towards a clear and unified purpose, all the while bringing out the best in each by training and mentoring them until they themselves are suited to be leaders.”
We’re now beginning to define the type of person we should be as a leader, and the type of people we want to lead.
If you want to become a leader or are looking to find leaders, merely playing the long game is no longer sufficient. When you’ve done the work to separate those who play the short game and those who play the long game, you’ll now be able to focus on those long-term people who you can mold into suitable leaders who live the long game.
Unserious “leaders” tend to play the long game. They fluctuate. They waver. They treat leadership like a diet—a cheat day here, an exception there. Playing implies that you can just stop whenever you want and pick it up wherever you left off. But leadership doesn’t quite work that way. In the real world of true, principled leadership, there are no part-time leaders. There are no subjective matters—what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Living the long game requires an unbreakable commitment. By taking on the responsibility of leading others, you have voluntarily taken on the burden of setting the standard and holding yourself and those you lead accountable to it.
As the leader, you are the model of what is acceptable. If you recall the Mimetic Theory of Leadership, you know that your behavior, your demeanor, your mindset, all the way down to how you dress—all of that will be seen as the standard. Very rarely will subordinates surpass the standard you set. But equally rarely will they ever fall short of your standard. The fact is, you are the standard. You set the rules of the game. If those who follow you see you drifting away from your standard, you can expect them to do the same. If you do not live the long game, you will see your standard slowly erode like coastline under a relentless ocean current. And as you know, beach erosion is difficult to repair.
In endeavoring to writing 100 actionable leadership lessons for you, I realize that this house of bricks that we’re building together cannot stand without a little bit of mortar. While this essay may be short on actionability, it will serve a huge role in the long run as the glue that keeps all of these lessons together. You must realize that if you are ever to become a leader with authority, respect, and loyalty, you can’t just play the long game like everyone else. You can’t just put the toothpaste back in the tube when you don’t feel like leading. But if you cannot set and hold your standard, you’re free to let it go down the drain. Until then, realize that as a leader, you are the long game. It is your job to live the long game. And you will inevitably attract followers who do the same.
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.