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Stop worshipping at the altar of the unicorn

It’s derailing your leadership and results.

As a culture, we are obsessed with the mythical and mystical. One such obsession is the unicorn. From movies to startups, to our leadership icons we have an endless well of idols to worship. We have a new entry – Joey, the Unicorn Sheep, saved by a farmer from the feedlot for two cartons of beer made headlines in Australia recently.

We love the unique, the thought that there is a special element to success in leadership, business and life. A magical formula where all the details of how they did that thing are laid out for us. What makes them so special? How did they achieve those magical results? We ask.  We analyse and try to emulate our heroes, yet deep down struggle to believe we are capable of the same. Elevating our idols creates safe distance, a canyon of evidence for why ordinary folk, like us, can’t achieve the same. Then when our heroes show us they are human, fallible and expose their gaps, we pull them into the abyss of our disappointment.

Because our idols, the ones we worship, love and study ( like former Apple CEO and Founder Steve Jobs, Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Branson and Huffington Post founder and CEO of Thrive Global – Arianna Huffington) are untouchable and unreachable in our eyes. Let’s learn from them is our motto, but the belief is that they are beyond our reach.

They are our leadership unicorns. Our overnight success stories that we admire or envy.  They are part of an elite we do not feel we can ever belong to. We love to view our heroes from afar and can feel bitterly disappointed when we meet them in real life. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert shares that she prefers not to meet her idols for this reason. They can never live up to our expectations. The singer and artist Madonna said that ‘Pedestals are for statues, not people’ when she spoke about the pressure of being an idol and idolised.

The pressure on leaders to be seen as untouchable, to be full of certainty and to be infallible is the kryptonite that drains potential for all at every level.

Leaders who get consistent results engage in consistent behaviours aligned with their values. They make mistakes, they learn from their mistakes, they are fallible. They become adaptable and they keep on showing up. Good days and bad days.

They don’t blast onto our screens with well-rehearsed scripts, however, they do prepare for both the expected and unexpected. Behaviours engaged in are the focus, not the scripts that go with the values on the walls of the organisations they work for.   

These values underpin the consistent behaviours in action which contribute to the cultures we work in. This, in turn, supports the values that permeate in cultures we create with the people we value. We show them rather than tell them.

There is no magic formula, just a lot of grit, mistakes and learning. Steve Jobs, depending on which article you read is hailed as a genius, a control freak, a reformed controlling perfectionist, a visionary. Did Jobs learn and change? Or did Apple learn to manage him? We don’t know. What can be deduced is that between Jobs and the rest of the leadership team at Apple, they learnt how to make his leadership successful. It wasn’t a one-man show.  Leadership never is.

The real heroes are the Leaders who Create Leaders. They make leadership accessible and they allow space for leadership in all its diverse forms to thrive.

This is how high-performance cultures are created and maintained.

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