The most important thing is not your desire to lead, but your will to prepare to lead

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YOU ARE A leader if you know where you are going, and are able to persuade others to go along with you. The process of leading begins with knowing where you want to go, but that is not where leadership really begins.

A championship basketball coach was asked about the famous phrase “will to win” and its role in his team’s successes. The coach replied, “The most important thing is not the will to win. The most important thing is the will to prepare to win.”

He was saying that championships are won on the practice floor, in the weight room, and in chalk talks long before the games are played. A team that neglects that preparation and tries to succeed on the basis of their “will to win” in the games will come up short.

I want to assert the same thing about leadership: The most important thing is not your desire to lead, but your diligence in preparing to lead.

To be an effective leader you must, at a minimum, do three things:

  1. Know what you want.
  2. Be able to communicate clearly.
  3. Be able to win followers.

We will begin at the end, because your ability to win followers cannot be something you try to figure out at the moment you want to lead. If you wait until “you know where you are going” before you begin to ask yourself how you can “persuade others to go along with you,” it will be too late. It must be part of your continuous preparation long before the moment of opportunity or need.

Authority is not leadership

Why should people follow you? That really is the heart of the issue, isn’t it? Immediately we are faced with the issue of authority. Someone is the boss, the manager, the officer. He or she has authority delegated from above that grants them power over people below.

Delegated authority is simply a part of organizational life. Authority is a good thing, but it also implies accountability and responsibility. The manager has power over his or her sphere, but they are also accountable to those above with responsibility for results. I am not questioning this reality, nor that it is a good thing when applied well. It provides the organization necessary for large groups of people to do anything in concert.

What I am asking a person with authority, though, is, “Why should people follow you?” It’s a question about leadership.

Mediocre bosses answer, “Because I’m the one in charge. Do it, or I’ll get someone else.” They are relying on their authority to get obedience.

Let’s face it. Soldiers in the army don’t have much choice if they are given orders by a superior officer. Neither do most employees in most companies. Since virtually all of us need to work in order to pay the bills, we have to do what we’re told or risk losing our jobs.

To that boss I counter, “That is not leadership. The most you can get through authority alone is compliance. A leader can stimulate willing commitment.”

You may now or in the future hold a position with significant authority. That’s good, you can do a lot of great things when equipped with authority, but only when it is empowered as well by effective leadership. I think that’s what Condoleezza Rice meant by her comment, “Power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence.” Raw power is not enough.

There is also the significant challenge of leading without formal authority. That is a very important distinction to learn and be aware of. For now, however, we are looking at what is common between leading with or without formal authority in winning followers.

I talk about “winning” followers for a reason. The question is how to stimulate people to follow you willingly as a leader.

Yes, there are extreme occasions where a leader must force people to follow, such as in wartime, but it is certainly not to be considered normal. There have been many managers in companies who have only gotten people to do their jobs through holding an “organizational gun” to their heads. That almost always signifies a failure of leadership.

The question of character

It also leads to the common question, “Is character necessary for leadership?” My answer is, “It depends what kind of leadership is called for.” Usually, the answer is yes. Proven honorable character is needed for long-term effective leadership. An exception, however, is crisis leadership. In a crisis, typically, all people want is results.

Randall was a physician, with whom circumstances forced me to associate for a long time. Being blunt, he was one of the most unpleasant, least-likable persons I’ve been around. I think most others felt the same.

However, imagine this scenario: Several of us are seated around a lunch table, when someone in the restaurant collapses. Randall is the only physician around. Who should take the lead? Of course, Randall should. What you want in a time of crisis is expertise. No one at the moment is concerned with Randall’s likability or character. The rest of us, myself included, can only be available to serve, including taking orders. If Randall tells me to do something, I’m going to do it as quickly as possible to help in this crisis.

Return to normal

The ailing person is helped, and we’re all relieved. But what happens when the crisis is over? No one is prepared to anoint Randall the leader of the group now that things have returned to normal. He is just as personally unpleasant as before, and our opinions of him are unchanged.

The same kind of dynamic can be seen throughout history for whole communities, even nations. When the barbarians are at the gate, we don’t care about someone’s character; we just want someone with B.O. bad enough to scare our enemies and lead us to victory. That doesn’t mean we want that warrior to reign over us in a time of peace.

Many a man or woman has stepped into a breach in an organization and taken decisive action to solve a problem. These have often been granted leadership positions as a result, and proven failures. The reason? They did not understand or embrace the full-orbed requirements of ongoing effective leadership. Professional competence (knowledge and skills) alone is not enough.


What is needed to win followers?

Jim Collins has stated this truth as well as anyone I know: "Leadership cannot be assigned or bestowed by power or structure; you are leader if and only if people follow your leadership when they have the freedom not to."

That is why I refer to “winning” followers. So what does it take?

Credibility earned through a consistent track record of behavior is the answer. That’s why I emphasize to all my clients and in leadership classes, “The currency of leadership is credibility.”

Your influence as a leader will be built or limited according to the credibility you earn in the eyes of others. That credibility must already be in the bank when the leadership opportunity or need arises. Effective leaders know that leadership begins with long, consistent preparation. Li

This article is adapted from BETTER: The Fundamentals of Leadership by Tim Stevenson, available at