Business Insight: Good leaders? Check your fairy tales
Folk myths hold truths that hold up today, author says
Published: December 14, 2012 09:44PM
Updated: April 8, 2013 11:33PM
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Author Erika Andersen. Courtesy image

Erika Anderson, founder of the consulting firm, Proteus International and author of “Leading So People Will Follow,” says choosing a leader was once a life or death decision, and today we’re still wired to accept as leaders only those people who line up with our centuries-old map of attributes.

Why do you believe that folk and fairy tales speak of good leaders?

When I was first starting to think about all this, my kids were small, and I was reading stories to them every night. I began to notice that many of these tales were about someone overcoming adversity to become a worthy leader. In fact, the more I read, a pattern began to emerge — a young hero-in-the-making, generally the youngest and least impressive of three brothers, who makes his way through a very specific and predictable series of trials — and in the process develops or reveals a core set of personal attributes that allow him to save the princess and become the wise and just ruler by the end of the tale. I noticed that this pattern of attributes essential to becoming a leader,was remarkably consistent across time and culture. It seemed to me that I had stumbled upon an archetype.

How deep is the yearning for good leaders?

In the mid-nineties, as I began working with very senior leaders in organizations, I started to notice a phenomenon I came to think of as “appointed leaders versus accepted leaders.” That is, I saw that some leaders were merely appointed. They may have had the title and the corner office, but people simply didn’t commit to them. Then there were accepted leaders. Sometimes they didn’t even have the external signs of leadership, but people gravitated toward them. I reflected that we humans have been choosing leaders throughout our history as a race, and — until very recently— that choice was often key to survival. Choose badly, and you were much more likely to starve or be killed by invaders. I began to think of the ability to choose good leaders — and the longing for such leaders — as a deeply-wired-in survival mechanism.

Explain leaders who are farsighted, passionate and courageous.

I found six attributes that showed up consistently in these “leader tales.” Farsighted leaders are those who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future they and their followers can achieve together, and who model and move toward the vision daily. Passionate leaders remain committed to that vision, to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge — and at the same time, they’re open to input and new ideas. Courageous leaders make difficult decisions with limited information, even when that’s uncomfortable for them, and they take full responsibility for those decisions.

What are the three other traits that make a good leader?

The other attributes of truly “followable” leaders are that they are wise, generous and trustworthy. Wise leaders reflect on their experience, learn from it, and think deeply about how to incorporate their understanding going forward. Generous leaders share what they have — knowledge, power, authority, and resources — and, perhaps most important, belief in our capability and our good intentions. Trustworthy leaders can be relied upon to keep their word and deliver on their promises, to do what they say they will do. These qualities are observable and developable. If you can be accurate about where you are now as a leader, and you’re open to learning, you can develop into the kind of leader around whom people coalesce, and with whom they’re motivated to achieve great things.

Dawn House

Erika Andersen, author