These are the qualities that make a great leader

Lots of companies make great products. Lots of politicians have potential. But very few people are able to become real, true leaders. Author Simon Sinek spoke with Glenn on TV last night about what it is about great leaders that they all have in common – the answers may surprise you.

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A transcript of the segment is below:

Glenn: Okay, I want to introduce you to a new friend, and that probably would’ve caused him some consternation if I would’ve said that a couple months ago, but a new friend and a guy I think we think an awful lot alike and that I think is important for you to know and read. He is the guy who now has Leaders Eat Last, a new book that is out, and also Start with Why. He has changed my life about a year ago or started to clarify what I kind of instinctively knew to be true, and now I think is in the midst of changing my life and really helping me on a path that I think with you we really will be the people that can really change the world.

I want to start, Simon Sinek is his name. I want to start, Simon, first with just a little bit about this vacuum of leadership and this idea that our leaders have failed us and where are the leaders? And we all say, you know, where is Ronald Reagan or where is Margaret Thatcher or where is Pope John Paul? The leaders of the past are gone, but that’s because we’re looking for them. Shouldn’t we be looking for them inside?

Simon: Yeah, I mean, we want to be led. We like leaders, you know? Nobody wants to go to work and be managed. We want to go to work and be led. I think one of the challenges we face is our own definition of leadership. We think that leadership comes with authority, and sometimes it does, and it’s certainly more efficient when a leader has some authority.

But I know many people who sit at the highest levels of whatever organization they run, but they’re not leaders. You know, they have authority, and we do what they tell us because they have authority over us, but we wouldn’t follow them. And I know many people who sit at the bottom of organizations that have no authority, but they’ve made a choice, a choice to look after the person to the left of them and a choice to look after the person to the right of them. And this is basically and fundamentally what leadership is. It is a choice.

Glenn: Are real leaders usually found at times of crisis? Because like September 11 or here I have this whole wall that is Abraham Lincoln’s face, he’s not the guy that you would pick out and go “I’m going to follow that guy,” but it happened on September 11 too. People who were just coworkers all of a sudden took charge and said, “You, you, and you, let’s go.” Are you born a leader?

Simon: Leadership is a skill like any other that some based on how they grew up and the way that they were raised and the sort of lessons they learned from their parents or their grandparents or their friends, you know, they have a talent. They have a talent for it. Some kids are great at basketball, they have a talent for it, and some kids have to work really, really, really hard to get good at basketball. Leadership is the same. It is a skill. Some have a natural capacity for it. Some of us have to work harder at it, but it is a practice. It’s not something we do at work and then we stop being a leader when we leave work.

Glenn: The key principles of leadership?

Simon: The key idea behind leadership is putting the well-being of others sometimes before ourselves, considering the well-being of others. So a great example of how to think about leadership is something I witnessed when I visited Quantico Marine Base which is where the Marines select their officers. And I did not hear a single Marine say the words I am a leader, I want to be a leader, I aspire to be a leader, I think I have what it takes to be a good leader. Those words were never uttered.

The words you do hear are I’m a leader of Marines, I believe I have what it takes to be a leader of Marines, I aspire to be a good leader of Marines. In other words, even in their own vernacular, they see leadership as a service to another human being, a leader of Marines, not just this leader, not this position or title to be held.

And I think that’s what we all have to remember, which is leadership is not a rank to attain, it’s a responsibility. It’s an honor. It’s much like being a parent, you know? The choice to have kids is the fun part. The choice to raise children is the difficult part.

Glenn: I’m amazed because the first time I spoke to you I said the same thing to you about your book, those are all biblical principles, and you’re not coming to it from a place of the Bible, but they’re all universal principles.

Simon: They’re human principles.

Glenn: They’re human principles, but I mean, it is the same as, you know, when Jesus says the first will be last, and you know, she’s greater because she took her hair and washed my feet when that at the time was you wanted to get around those people. But I serve you. I’ll wash your feet, and it’s the same principle back then.

Simon: There is no expectation of anything in return.

Glenn: Right, and back then they didn’t get it, and we still don’t get it.

Simon: And this is why when we find great leaders, the reason we want to follow them is because they serve as the example. They give us permission. They show us what it looks like. They lead the way. You know, leadership comes with risk. You go first means you’re the one who may get in trouble or get your head cut off for taking that risk and –

Glenn: So does good leadership have anything to do with shedding all the trappings of the leaders? I mean, because some people will say well, they’re rich or they’re this or that. You can still be – that doesn’t matter.

Simon: There’s no relationship whatsoever. You know, as a leader, you know, we’re hierarchical animals naturally, and there’s basis for this, which is we used to live in populations no bigger than 150 people. This presents a bit of a problem. You know, these austere times someone brings back food, we all rush in to eat. If you’re lucky enough to be built like a linebacker, you shove your way to the front. If you’re the “artist” of the family, you get an elbow in the face.

This is a bad system for cooperation because the odds are I’m not going to alert the person who punched me in the face this afternoon I’m not going to alert them to danger this evening when they’re sleeping, you know, I’m just going to leave them.

Glenn: Correct.

Simon: So there’s a different system that had to evolve. And we are hierarchical animals. We’re constantly assessing and judging each other, who’s alpha, who’s beta. And when we assess that someone is alpha to us, and sometimes it’s a formal hierarchy, you know, it’s a higher rank, and sometimes it’s an informal thing. And it’s not a constant, it’s a relative system. When we assess that someone is alpha, we voluntarily step back and allow alphas to eat first.

Alphas get first choice of meat and first choice of mate. And so though we may not get the best choice of meat, we will get to eat eventually, and we don’t get an elbow in the face – good system. And to this day this system exists and is alive and well. Not a single person has a problem with somebody more senior than them in the company making a higher salary. That doesn’t bother us. We may think they’re ineffective, we may think they’re an idiot, but it actually doesn’t bother us that they get a higher salary because they’re higher level than us in the company. It doesn’t bother us that they have a bigger office or a better parking space.

Glenn: However, it is in our society being touted as a bad thing.

Simon: And here’s the reason, because none of that stuff comes for free. You see, we are okay with our leaders being given preferential treatment and having the trappings and the perks if they’re willing to uphold their responsibility as a leader. It doesn’t come for free. So the group is not stupid. You see, we expect that when danger threatens the tribe, when danger threatens the group, that it will be the guy who’s stronger, better fed with all that confidence who will rush towards the danger to protect us.

Glenn: So the reason why that’s happening is because the big guys got the bailouts, they all kept their jobs, nobody paid the price, but when there was trouble, they cut all of those jobs down there.

Simon: And this is why we have visceral contempt for some of the banking CEOs and their disproportionate salaries and perks. It’s not the numbers. It’s that they have violated the very human definition of what it means to be a leader. We know that they allowed people to be sacrificed so they could keep what was theirs, or worse, they sacrificed their people so they could keep what was theirs.

What if I told you we were going to give Nelson Mandela $150 million bonus? No big deal. How about Mother Teresa, $250 million bonus? No one has a problem with the numbers or the perks or the better life or the people carrying your bags or calling you sir. No one has an issue with that.

Glenn: In fact, I had a problem when Jimmy Carter wouldn’t carry his bags because I was like he’s the president.

Simon: He’s the president, exactly. The issue we have is when you are given all of those advantages, and you are not willing to uphold the responsibility of the leader, in other words, you think it’s about you.

There was a great story I was told which I’ll share with you which I think encapsulates what it means to be a leader. It was a former undersecretary of defense, and he retired about a year prior. And he was giving a speech at a large conference of about 1,000 people. And he’s standing on the stage giving his prepared remarks sipping his coffee from a Styrofoam cup he had. And he stops and interrupts himself. And he looks down at the cup, and he looks up at the audience.

He says, “You know, I spoke at this exact same conference last year, except last year I was still the undersecretary. And I flew here business-class, and there was someone to meet me at the airport. And they drove me to the hotel. And they’d already checked me in, and they took me up to my room. I came down the next morning, another person was waiting for me, drove me to this same venue. They took me in the back entrance. They took me to the green room, and they gave me a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

He says, “I’m no longer the undersecretary. I flew here coach. I took a cab from the airport to the hotel. I checked myself in. This morning I took another cab to this venue. I walked in the front door, found my way backstage, and when I asked somebody, ‘Do you have any coffee,’ he pointed to the coffee machine in the corner, and I poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup.”

He says, “The lesson is the ceramic cup was never meant for me, it was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.” And this is the point, I think a lot of people in leadership positions believe that all those perks that are afforded to them are for them. It’s not. It’s for the position they hold. And they have a responsibility, because, by the way, when they leave, they will give those things to the next person.

And I think one of the humilities of leadership is that we have to remember though we were given these things, and we can enjoy them, I mean, let’s be honest, it’s good, it’s nice, it’s good to be the king, it feels good, we get all of these advantages, but it all comes at a price.

First of all, it’s given to the position and not to you, that’s number one. And number two, we have to “pay” for those things by offering and sometimes sacrificing what is in our interest for the good of those around us or the good of those who have committed themselves to see our visions come to life. That’s the responsibility of leadership.

Glenn: We have about three and a half minutes, but I want to tell you real quick you will understand why I’ve been saying about mercy, mercy, mercy, justice and mercy, we have to serve one another, if you read his book, Leaders Eat Last. And if you missed the radio show, listen to I think it was hour one and two today on the radio show, never had a guest on for three hours and did it today, and it’s fantastic.

And it’s really important that you watch that and read his book. Let me ask you this, we’re not people on paper that should be sitting down with each other.

Simon: You and me?

Glenn: Why are you here?

Simon: I’m here for the same reason you’re here, which is one, I have an insatiably curious mind, and I believe that people who have different perspectives than I have have something to teach me that I can learn. I know enough to know that I know very little, that I don’t know everything.

And I think we have a bad habit in this country of listening to the people who tell us what we already agree with or tell us what want to hear because it feels good and because we agree with it. And you know, if your politics are left, you listen to left media, if your politics are right, you listen to right media, and never shall the twain interact or mix.

Glenn: And you don’t put yourself in either of those categories?

Simon: Oh no, I consider myself a common sensist, and I will work with anyone. And I’m very open about it. You know, I’ll get calls from Republicans, and I’ll tell them, yeah, just so you know, I’m going to give the same advice to Democrats. And when Democrats call, I say just so you know, I’m going to give the same advice to Republicans because my goal is that we find common cause and work together.

And so the reason I wanted to meet you was because I was told I should meet you, is because I was told that, you know, you disagree with him. I’m like really? Because I’ve never met him, you know? And we may have not got along, and so I would have wasted an hour of time to find out that I didn’t like him. And instead, I found an hour of time that made me craving wanting more.

And what I love is that you and I seem to represent an example of what the rest of us could do. Instead of hearing the sound bite and forming our opinion and saying, “I hate that person, I hate that side, I hate that group,” to rather say, “I’d like to learn more. I think we both want the same thing.”

Glenn: Without getting into specifics, you and I have had a couple of times where I think both of us have gone either on the phone or in e-mail or something we’ve gone okay, all right, maybe that came out wrong.

Simon: That’s not what I meant.

Glenn: That’s not what I meant.

Simon: Because we find ourselves going at each other and the other one going whoa, that’s not what I meant.

Glenn: Right.

Simon: And I think the things we say are not always the things we mean. Let me rephrase that, the words that people hear are not always what we mean. And so I think it’s the responsibility to try and be as articulate as possible obviously, but I think it’s the responsibility of the listener or the person receiving information to say let me understand what you mean, what do you mean by that, let me repeat back to you in my own words and tell me is this what you’re trying to say? Because I think 99 times out of 100, I think we just completely misunderstand each other.

Glenn: You learn that from any marriage counselor. Anyway, the name of the book is Leaders Eat Last, and Start with Why, either one, both of them, highly recommended. Simon, thank you.

Simon: Thanks for having me, Glenn.