Almost daily I see an article or post telling me leadership is situational. One size does not fit all, they say; we must adapt our leadership behavior to suit the context. Ken Blanchard is the original proponent of situational leadership, but the idea has been adopted by businesspeople everywhere.
Left mostly unexplored, however, is one of the most important contexts for a leader: their age.
The Leadership Career
I’m not talking about chronological age, but rather the stage we’ve reached in our leadership career. Are we just starting out, perhaps a first-time project manager? Climbing through the ranks, seeking to build our influence across the organization? Or sitting at the peak of our powers (however defined), secure in the fact that at least a few bucks stop at our desk? Each stage has its requirements.
In the March 17, 2008, issue of Fortune, there’s an article by Stanley Bing called “The Seven Ages of Business.” It’s a parody of a Shakespearean soliloquy. In it, Bing scans the seven stages of a leader’s life, from “the tiny associate” all the way up to “the chairman, the bee at the center of the hive.”
It’s a terrific article, but I believe the ages of leadership can be compressed to just three: the New Leader, the Rising Leader, and the Tenured Leader. To understand these stages, let’s look at three great leaders of ancient times: their traits, their mottoes, and the foods they might have Instagrammed were they alive today.
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The New Leader: Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
- Peak decade: His twenties
- Famous for: Setting off at age twenty to overthrow the Persian Empire, and succeeding; being one of the first leaders to think strategically about military campaigns and utilize inventive battle formations; gaining the fanatical loyalty of his troops by fighting alongside them and sharing their hardships.
- Food he’d Instagram: Ice cream. Legend says he invented it. According to Plutarch, while on the march through cold countries Alexander would have his cook mix snow with wine and honey, thereby creating the first iced dessert. If the story is true, we have him to thank for a good chunk of the world’s happiness over the past two thousand years.
- Character traits: Boldness, creativity, good humor
- New Leader’s Motto: “Lean in.” For a new leader, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice is spot on. But don’t be a pushy jerk. Instead, be like Alexander: go first, think creatively, and lead by example. If you have an idea for color-changing ice cream, now’s the time to put it out there.
The Rising Leader: Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)
- Peak decade: His forties
- Famous for: Working his way up from obscurity; conquering Gaul and a few other regions; using a combination of military prowess, astute alliances, and self-promotional tactics to topple the Roman Republic and become the first supreme leader of Rome and all its territories.
- Food he’d Instagram: Asparagus. At a banquet at the home of one of his allies, Caesar was served a dish of asparagus that had been mistakenly dressed with ointment instead of oil. He swallowed it with no sign of disgust and later chastised one of his retinue who complained. “He who reflects on another man’s breeding shows he wants it as much himself,” he said.
- Character traits: Diplomacy, generosity, political savvy
- Rising Leader’s Motto: “People first.” Caesar was a master of alliances and saw his supporters as his best and surest guard. Like him, rising leaders must take care to build coalitions at all levels and avoid ticking people off. Be prepared to eat some messed-up asparagus rather than insult your dinner host.
The Tenured Leader: Emperor Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD)
- Peak decade: His fifties
- Famous for: Being considered an embarrassment due to his limp, mild deafness, and stammer; surviving the purges of Tiberius and Caligula’s reigns; becoming Emperor of Rome at age 51; building roads, harbors, and aqueducts; conquering Britain.
- Food he’d Instagram: Mushrooms. Canny and careful, Claudius managed to survive the murders and executions that decimated his extended family after the death of Augustus Caesar. Once he became emperor, however, it wasn’t so easy to fly under the radar. A dish of mushrooms—one of his favorite foods—was his undoing. Most accounts say they were poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, who wanted to ensure her son Nero’s succession to the throne.
- Character traits: Integrity, judgment, circumspection
- Tenured Leader’s Motto: “Look before leaping.” The biggest trap for a tenured leader is over-confidence. It doesn’t occur to us that our long-time favorite strategies might stop working or that our flatterers might not have our interests at heart. So, proceed with caution. Snarfing down that tasty dish of mushrooms could be a fatal error.
What stories do you have that illustrate the ages of leadership? What other mottoes would you propose for each stage? And which would you rather eat: ice cream, asparagus, or mushrooms?
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