We are all in the midst of being inundated with talk of leadership, and what makes a good leader.  We are, after all, only a few weeks away from choosing America’s next leader.  As I examine my own thoughts about our two choices, Romney and Obama, I find myself reflecting back to the 2008 election and remembering (and I say this at the risk of putting my own political leanings too much on display here) how inspired I was by Obama and how hopeful I was that this was the individual who would illuminate a better path forward and help us through what was unfolding to become one of the biggest crises in our nation’s history.  Despite the arguments that we are no better off than we were four years ago, I still feel that way about Obama.  I want to feel that way about Romney, too, but so far I don’t, and I’m not sure I see that situation changing.

So what’s the difference between the two? I don’t honestly know with any certainty, but I’ve distilled one piece of it down to this: I am convinced that Obama’s style is to inspire others, be they in his government, or just us ordinary folks, to take responsibility and action.  To have an active role in formulating our own solutions to these problems. To take it upon ourselves to move forward.  His goal is to give us the tools to do that, and inspire us to take those next steps on our own.  With Romney, it’s not that he’s done the opposite of this, it’s just that he hasn’t convinced me that he’ll have a similar approach or at least one with a similar outcome.  I can’t get a sense of it by watching the debates or his speeches.  The jury is still out on him.

Leaving political leadership behind, what is leadership in the business world? I read lots of blogs and articles about start-ups and listen to people who are experienced founders of businesses talk about leadership and what it looks like in the corporate context.  From what I read and what I see in my clients who have or are still operating successful businesses, and from what I’ve seen in those that have failed, it doesn’t appear to be so different from what I see in Obama.  Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about those he or she is leading and plugging them into the collective vision.  I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend of mine shortly after this person was appointed as an officer of a start-up here in Austin.  This person was genuinely excited about the company and the people, but in musing about the responsibilities of the new position, they made a comment to the effect of “heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  They implied feeling burdened by their responsibilities to their employees, but the focus was very paternalistic. As if they were single-handedly responsible for feeding their employees’ families, and I think this person might have been focusing a bit too much on that type of power that may or may not exist in the role of a leader of an organization. It struck me as a very egocentric view of what it means have the leadership role that this person had.

I think its good for executives to have a sense of personal responsibility to their employees, but in the example I mentioned, this individual was one of several other founders, each of whom presumably had different, but complimentary, leadership roles, and each of whom I’m sure felt responsibility for the others in the organization. If the focus of someone’s leadership of others is his relationship to them on the corporate organizational chart, and his actions are driven by that focus, then a huge opportunity is being missed to push those individuals to be more to the organization as a whole.

Executing a vision will ultimately involve assigning tasks in a hierarchical manner in order to move the project forward, but it can’t be only that.  Sharing a vision will give meaning to those tasks, but I think that’s still not enough.  A successful leader, through some mechanism, inspires people to adopt that vision as their own, and in doing that, causes those individuals to take responsibility for their part in executing the vision, and works with them to figure out how to accomplish that. This is growth. Leadership is collective, not individual.  Whether it’s collective horizontally, among co-founders of a company, or vertically, between an executive and her employees, if, at the end of the day, the leader has sold others on the vision and given them the tools to execute their part, they are in it together, and they are better together.

Whitney Johnson published a piece in Harvard Business Review titled “If You Want to Lead, Read These 10 Books” (http://blogs.hbr.org/johnson/2012/10/if-you-want-to-lead-read-these.html) She has a great comment in that post, where she states that leading is not just growing your own abilities, but also the abilities of those who follow you.  That, in my opinion, epitomizes the “better together” point.  Leaders have to focus on not just their growth, but the growth of the others who they have brought into their shared vision.  Leadership is following through on that.