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10 Behaviours of real leaders

Leaders lead. Followers follow. You can't do both. That's not opinion; it's biology.


Steve Tobak, Entrepreneur, 01 October 2015  Share  0 comments  Print


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There’s usually a pecking order in the animal kingdom. There are queen bees, alpha gorillas, and male-female wolf pairs that dominate the pack. Humans are no different.

This may come as a shock, but organisational constructs like tribes, societies, and companies are not the result of high-level intelligence but of primitive survival impulses reinforced by neurotransmitters in the brain’s ancient limbic system.

To say that leadership and organisational behaviour has been successful in the animal kingdom is a gross understatement. The planet is fully populated by millions of animal species that all exhibit the same sort of behaviour.

Related: Women in Innovation: Inspiring others

The point is, leadership is not so much a thought process as it is instinctive behaviour. It’s evolutionary. It’s to a great extent responsible for our survival on earth. And that’s why we do it. As survival imperatives go, it’s right up there with eating and breeding. No kidding.

So when I say, “Leaders lead. Followers follow. You can’t do both,” in my upcoming book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow, I’m not making this stuff up. It’s biology. Granted, you can behave any way you like by overriding your survival instincts, but neither you nor I get to change how the species behaves. Evolution’s got that covered.

I know you didn’t click on the headline to get a biology lesson, but it’s important to understand that leadership is not really about traits or habits. It’s primarily a behavioural phenomenon. So let’s be practical for a moment and discuss the sort of behavior we consistently value in our most cherished leaders.

They teach

Apple CEO Tim Cook credits the company’s success in no small part to Steve Jobs’s role as a teacher. The way Apple’s unique culture continues to flourish and scale, even as the company grows to enormous size and valuation, is a testament to the way Jobs taught his team what matters most, so they could teach their teams, and so on.

Related: Your business will only grow as much as you grow

If they hear you, they will listen

Whether it’s politics, business, or non-profit, there are great demands on leaders’ time. That comes with the territory. So there are physical, organizational, and mental barriers they put up to block out the noise. Nevertheless, their success depends on being open to new and different perspectives. So, if they hear you, they will listen.

They challenge themselves

Great leaders are never satisfied with the status quo and that goes for their own status quo, as well. They may recognise the success of the team, especially after a long hard effort, but you’ll rarely see them patting themselves on the back. Their own accomplishments don’t excite them; the next challenge does.

They don’t follow

All leaders learn from experience and mentors. All leaders serve their stakeholders. But learning and serving are not the same as following. Real leaders serve and learn from others, but they still carve their own path. They have their own unique ways of doing things. And, when it comes to key decisions, they trust only their own judgment and their own gut.

They solve big problemsLeadership -advice

Real leaders don’t play small ball. Whether it’s a customer problem, a constituent problem, or a societal problem, they live to come up with innovative solutions to big, tough problems. Real leaders are great troubleshooters.

Their vision inspires others to act

I’ll never understand the endless debates over what leadership is and isn’t. It’s simple, really. Leaders are those who others follow. And leadership behaviour causes others to act. Whether they have a vision for a product, an organisation, a people, or a future, that’s what inspires them to lead and their followers to action.

They don’t whine

Most great leaders grew up with adversity, so they learned at an early age that complaining gets them nowhere. Instead, they set out to prove something to themselves and others – that they’re special, unique, worthy, capable – and that’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They don’t overindulge their egos

Even if it’s not self-evident, most successful leaders have healthy egos – a strong sense of self. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. In any case, when our egos write checks that reality can’t cash, that’s self-limiting behaviour. Some leaders learn from those mistakes and gain wisdom and humility. Others don’t, and that’s unfortunate.

They do only what matters

Leaders are by definition people of consequence. They’re driven by their vision, their obsession, a problem they must solve, whatever, but they’re usually driven by one thing and that’s what matters to them. They move heaven and earth to make it happen and ignore pretty much everything else, although there’s usually an exception or two.

Related: 7 Ways to go from a boss to a leader

They’re effective, not efficient

Since they’re consumed by a passion of some sort, that’s what they’re all about. Minutiae like optimising, fine-tuning, efficiency, and productivity are completely off their radar screen, unless of course it just happens to be their specific focus. I suppose there have been leaders of the Toyoda (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, not Toyota) family obsessed with Kaizen – continuous improvement – but that’s an unusual circumstance.

The important thing to keep in mind is that leaders are defined by their behaviour. What they do and don’t do. How they act and don’t act. They come in all shapes and sizes.

They are extraverts and introverts. They’re morning people and night owls. They’re healthy and completely out of shape. They have neat desks and workspaces that look like a tornado ripped through it.

One thing’s for certain. Real leaders don’t follow. It’s biology. 

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About the author


Steve Tobak, Entrepreneur

Steve Tobak is managing partner of Invisor Consulting – a Silicon Valley-based management and strategy consulting firm – and a former senior executive of the technology industry

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