People could be divided roughly into two groups: guests and hosts.
Many people strive for authority positions because they think it means they’ll in effect be the guest of honor at an endless series of banquets.
But if you’re a leader, you’re not the guest of honor at the party. You’re the host. And there’s a certain mindset that a good host has.
You’ve willingly taken on the role of providing everyone else with the best possible experience. As the host, you realize you won’t make everyone happy. You don’t have the budget or time for that, and you know that you can’t do much about the fact that many people were just born to complain. But you do what you set out to do, with both maturity and passion.
A good host has a certain energy, which every leader should aspire to summon as they begin their day. The good host exudes a warm, inviting spirit that signals, “This is a good and safe place to be. You’re in the right place. We’ve got it under control”
An accomplished host is outward-focused, more likely to compliment you on your outfit than to worry about what you think of his outfit. He takes spilled drinks and faux pas moments in stride. Ultimately, he takes ownership of the evening, but he does so in a way that doesn’t consume or drain him.
The good host exercises authority and power in the ideal way. Here’s why that’s so important for aspiring leaders to keep in mind.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” Abraham Lincoln said, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
It’s no secret that we’re all drawn to power. Even if we’re too shy or timid to reach for it directly, we still like to get close to someone who does.
So it was inevitable that leadership training would become a multi-billion-dollar entity spanning industry, education and media. The worst experts offer quick formulas guaranteed to increase your power, while the good ones offer wise lessons about what power is to be used for.
A big problem with much of the leadership-training industry is that it plays off people’s vanity. It suggests a couple of things:
1. In any room, the leader is the most important person.
2 And if you embrace these five or seven or 12 patented tips for leading, you’ll be a hero, everyone will love you, and they’ll only neglect you long enough to build your statue or to swat pigeons from it.
There’s some reality to the first point. The alpha type enjoys enviable rights and prerogatives among many species, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees (who are genetically 98% identical to us).
It turns out the true alpha dog doesn’t just lounge around and enjoy the perks of the title. It has special, difficult obligations to protect the tribe. It faces constant threats of being overtaken by pretenders to the job. And once the alpha type loses such a battle, there’s no such thing as an easy retirement or pension. You’re ostracized.
It’s a lot like being the host of the party, but you’ll be kicked out of your house if the party stinks or if the guests woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Now that’s pressure.
But the true host loses herself or himself in the moment, in the zen of the event itself, with little sense of self. If they take the microphone, it’s to honor someone else, not just to bloviate with some new jokes they heard. The best hosts make them somewhat invisible, so that the party itself is what the guests remember, and their own wonderful interactions there.
I’ve been very influenced by Lao Tzu, the legendary (and perhaps mythical) father of Taoism. To paraphrase one idea, he said that the best leader is the one whom the people barely notice: When his or her work is done, the people say, “This was an amazing thing that we did by ourselves!”
A host facilitates that same sort of experience. The guests don’t leave feeling a sense of debt, they leave feeling richer for having contributed something of value to the evening.
That’s often the opposite of what most management and leadership gurus are trying to tell us, as they sell myths about power and prestige. But the party doesn’t get started unless and until we bring the right approach.