There are many definitions of leadership, but the one I like most holds that leadership is the art of getting others to “willingly devote their energies and talents in a collaborative effort” to do what the leader believes can or must be done.
Many efforts to develop leaders address the obvious skills and behaviors needed to gain followers, but I think it’s more important to look underneath the skills to the not-so-obvious art of attracting willing followers.
That’s why the notion of leaders as attractors has such resonance for me. It’s a concept that my colleague Michael Shenkman explores in depth in his book "The Arch and the Path: The Life of Leading Greatly."
Attractors are particularly effective in the art of creating and coalescing followers.
Just as in nature, where systems organize around attractors—a hurricane, for example—so do magnetic leaders pull toward themselves the energy and resources needed to make something significant happen. Hurricanes feed off the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and organize around low-pressure areas; leaders feed off the energy of their own beliefs and organize around changing circumstances.
At its core, a hurricane has an eye that remains eerily calm within the low-pressure zone; the energy from the winds and rain organize around that zone, determining the shape and size of the hurricane.
Without the eye of the hurricane, the winds and rain would dissipate.
We experience leaders in similar ways. At their core, leaders find their own sense of trust and resolve that keeps them centered and grounded in the midst of intense energy they feel within themselves as well as from their environment. Followers gain strength and energy from being in proximity to the leader; the leader’s energy functions as the eye of the hurricane, organizing followers’ passions and desires. Without the leader, there would be no reason for followers to coalesce.
So what does taking on the attractor role entail?
It means understanding that the challenge is all about managing energy—your own and that of others. Just like the eye of the hurricane, you take individual energies and move them to a higher level of strength and capability, all while remaining eerily serene and calm in the midst of chaotic forces of change.
The leader-as-attractor stirs up energy while making sense of changing circumstances; she then uses that assessment to forge a vision of what needs to be done. Such leaders know how to create the right level of energy so that the appropriate kinds of connection can be fostered. Within that managed area of pressure—the leader’s energy can be experienced as pressure—leaders allow space for others to explore new possibilities for themselves without getting lost in the chaos. Leaders manage the pressure by balancing how they increase the challenges, on the one hand, with how they bolster followers’ confidence that the challenges can be met on the other. They also filter out excess energy, and minimize the distractions that can diminish energy, so that the right type of communication, information, and organization can take shape among followers.
What attracts followers to such leaders?
The high expectations about what is possible and the value that the leader’s vision creates resonate with followers’ own sense of life purpose and personal mission. As followers are drawn toward a collective purpose and aspiration, the leader’s field of energy enhances the ability of people to organize themselves and to feed off of each other’s energy. The result is a more capable system—individually and collectively.