Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

The paradox of leadership


If you want to be a great leader, you have to be a great follower. I call this the paradox of leadership because it seems contradictory that a person who becomes a great leader would look to others for advice or have a high regard for other people. However, all the great leaders I have studied talk about the people who encouraged them or inspired them to do great things. An in almost every case, it wasn’t just one person who inspired them; it was a number of people. I have observed the following characteristics of great leaders that fit the paradox of leadership:

  1. They study successful people: They have devoted significant time and energy to studying great leaders of the past and present. They take careful note of the results that have made others successful and find ways to incorporate them into their daily life.
  2. They take direction: Great leaders are willing to take direction from others. The ‘others’ could be a spouse, a boss or a religious leader. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter; they respect others and are willing to listen and take direction regardless of their position.
  3. They are humble: Most of the great leaders, both past and present, are humble, unassuming people. By ‘humble’ I do not mean weak or simple, but modest and self-effacing. They have a way of inspiring greatness in others while not drawing attention to their own successes. They look for ways to help others build confidence and seem to find happiness the successes of the people they help.


Think & Grow RichI can think of many leaders (past and present) who embody these characteristics in their lives. Napoleon Hill exemplifies a leader who was a great follower. He studied the lives of successful people for more than 20 years and compiled his findings in the book Think and Grow Rich. He coined phrases like “thoughts are things” and “the mastermind” and quotes such as “whatever the mind of a man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” The interesting thing about Hill’s success as a leader was that he did not set out to become a leader. He humbly agreed to a challenge by Andrew Carnegie to learn about his secret and take it to the world. In part because of his willingness to be a follower (and a learner) he became a world renowned author and leader.

Who are some of the people you think are great leaders? Do they exhibit characteristics of the paradox of leadership? What are some of the other characteristics they possess? I would love to hear from you; please leave a comment!

7 thoughts on “The paradox of leadership

  1. This article proved to me that I’m on the right track. I have recently invested in a Network Marketing company and am in the process of surrounding myself with leaders. My intention is to get enough leaders around me that there will always be someone to talk to, when I hit a bump in the road. And, so far, I’ve learned more about marketing then I thought was possible in a two week period.

    One other thing I’ve notices about great leaders is how many of them ended up angering their leaders and mentors, because they realized there was a better way. People like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and George Patton

    I have started a chapter by chapter review of Napoleon Hill’s, Think and Grow Rich on my blog, littleengineblog.blogspot.com. I hope you can drop by and leave your own insights.

  2. I am most definitely in agreement with you. I am a true lover of the thoughts and ideas of Mr. Hill as well.

    I just wrote a blog that took your idea to the next level and expanded on Hill’s and other ideas – much along your lines as well.


    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the blog too!

  3. Michael,

    Thank you for leaving a comment. I’m not into Network Marketing myself (I became a bit jaded by some Amway people back in the 90’s). However, great leadership is a key to success in any type of business or organization.

    I hadn’t considered the topic of new leaders “angering their leaders and mentors.” No doubt it has happened, and you site some high-profile leaders. (If you have specific examples please share them.) However, in my studies most great leaders mentor and build up others with the intent that they will find better ways to do things. That’s what we should strive for. We should have the attitude building up others to take our place.

  4. The paradox you describe sounds similar to what exists in the concept of servant leadership. Either way, great leaders understand that their success is through others, not in spite of them. I understand what you mean by the description of humility, but I’m not sure all great leaders possess this particular skill or strength. George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Lou Holtz, Jack Welch and more were/are considered great leaders, but none of them are humble, even though they did bring out the best in others. I enjoyed the article and your blog.

  5. Jeremy, you bring up a good point; not everyone is humble, at least by the standards of others. But I think in their own way they posses some degree of humility. Of the names you mention, the only one with which I am familiar (beyond just reading about him) is Lou Holtz. I love watching him on ESPN because he really gets into the game (of football). He may not exactly be what I would traditionally call “humble,” but he appears work well with the other announcers is willing to admit when he’s wrong. Whether that came across when he was a coach…I have no idea. Thanks for your input!

  6. Nice to see all theories and model of leadeship. Is ther a model and theory for leadeship for Director of an MBA institute. What model would be fine,. if u r working with people of medicracy behaviour.

  7. Manchester United 2-0 Watford : United move one point behind City in fourthThe Sun.

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