I’ve found that there are many fictional works that have within them embedded excellent principles of leadership. Perhaps like leadership itself, some things you learn best through examples and stories.
The Adventures of Merlin was one particular TV series that I enjoyed for its examples of leadership. Here is a particular story that inspired me (season 1 episode 9):
The king as the best swordsman
In the beginning of the episode a mysterious dark rider comes into Camelot and throws down his gauntlet to challenge Uther Pendragon, before he can pick it up to accept the challenge one of his knights (Sir Owen) accepts it. In a brutal battle Sir Owen is defeated and the rider throws down the gauntlet again. Another knight accepts it and is defeated in a harsh battle. Eventually the king realises this warrior is here for the explicit purpose of killing him, so he accepts the challenge, denying his own son the opportunity.
In the final battle between this warrior and the king, watchers of the series discover something that was not heretofore clear at all. The king himself is actually an exceptional swordsman — perhaps better than all of the knights. But this discovery is surprising given that, up until now, all he ever seems to do is sit on the throne and handle the more political affairs. This discovery is both refreshing and empowering in both the fictional world and the real one. The king ought to also be the best swordsman.
When he is not
I recall a while ago working in IT support at a time when we had a transition between two of my bosses. Of course, given any transition between bosses you’d notice differences in style, personality, and so on — but the most stark difference was that the first boss had an immense personal knowledge base of IT — he really understood the ins and outs of computers, networks and information systems. In a very real sense, if called to “do a duel”, he would probably beat most of the people working in the department in terms of technical knowledge.
The second boss however, did not. He had come from a more conceptual background, he knew about IT but did not know IT — Similar to a general who had never really seen battle. Of course, let me not imply that this person did a horrible job or performed very poorly, again he could be called the silver or bronze medallist. He was good, but not great. And it was much harder for him to earn the respect and loyalty of the people he led (including myself) given his more limited knowledge of IT and information systems.
Both Willing AND Able
When some people “ascend” to leadership positions, although they do not lose the ability to be the best swordsman, they can lose the willingness. In a previous article I’ve described the other half of the puzzle — willingness. A king who is the best swordsman but who refuses to join his knights in the front-lines of a real battle would probably not inspire fanatic loyalty. “Where’s the king?” “Why does he not join us in battle?” “Has he just sent us out here to die?” — a true leader leads in such a manner that such questions would never even be asked, because the reality of both their willingness AND ability are so stark from their actions that no one need question them.
If you are a leader of sorts, are you the best swordsman among your knights? Do you have a skill level that commands the respect of your team? It’s interesting, and it seems to be almost a natural law that, in general no one likes backseat drivers, but I’ve not heard people complain about formula one race car drivers. I believe one of the most effective ways of gaining respect as a leader is showing powerful ability coupled with powerful will.