Leading those who Lead

Leading those who Lead


Leading Leaders” by Jeswald W. Salacuse, 2006, 229 pages


Leadership is never a walk in the park. While there may be periods where the task seems to flow more easily, in general we find ourselves faced with an ever-changing external world and the task of ensuring that our organization is in the best possible position to thrive and survive. This is true both in terms of taking care of and leading the people of the organization and in terms of ensuring that the setup and business opportunities pursued are the best possible.

Leading people is challenging. People are not like machines or systems, fairly easily predictable. People are complex individuals and the complexity only increases as we start to organize in teams, projects and departments. Now imagine that the people we lead are highly talented, smart, powerful people, that they in fact are themselves leaders formally or informally. In order to lead this kind of person some of the more ingrained leadership behaviours may well need to be revised. It means using other approaches, such as the ones talked about in Jeswald W. Salacuse’s book “Leading Leaders”.

Who are These People

In order to be able to provide leadership to a group of very smart, very talented, powerful people, the first thing we need to do is to get to know them sufficiently well. Here we are not talking about knowing their personal lives and loves, but about knowing what their interests are and which groups or other people they are connected to.

We also need to realize that people of this type are deeply vested in their professions, some to be point of them perceiving it as a calling. Being very vested in their professions, they may not necessarily be as vested in the organization. They may very well see the organization as a way for them to carry out their profession to their standards. If the organization no longer provide this opportunity, these people will most likely not hesitate to find another organization that is closer aligned with their interests.

What we must also realize is that the people in question do not see themselves as followers, but as leaders in their own right, whether or not they have official positions within leadership. They typically have established their own realm of influence inside and outside the organization and they expect their interests to be taken into consideration.

They Make and Unmake Us as Leader

It is important to understand that we cannot force ourselves on these very talented and smart people as their leader. They decide if they accept us and they may revoke their acceptance along the way. Our position, charisma and knowledge will not get us very far.

The key element is continual one-to-one conversations to get to know the interests of each person and to know where that person stands with regard to commitment to goals and assignments. Further, a good way to gain acceptance is to keep them well-informed and involved in decision-making whenever feasible.

In this way we can gradually build up trust that we are actively taking care of their interests when carrying out our leadership duties. By involving these smart, talented people we also gain access to treasure troves of knowledge, ideas and potentially also to external input from the professional field of this person. Our decisions will not only be more solidly based, but will also have greater levels of commitment, as it is more likely that people will follow through on decisions which they have participated in making.

However, we must be genuine regarding the involvement, as any attempts at manipulation will most certainly be found out and resented by our talented, smart people. This will most likely cost us their acceptance of us as leader as will perceived lack of fair process and divide & conquer tactics.


It is often found that talented and smart people are more oriented towards individual goals and accomplishments than toward group work. In some scenarios having people work individually on assignments may produce the results that are needed. In other cases however, we may need several smart, talented people to work together on an assignment; each person bringing their expertise and their influence inside and outside the organization to the table. We may find some barriers to overcome before the group effort can get under way.

One thing we may need to work at is to make the individual participants see how the assignment the group is assembled to fulfill fits in with their own interests. In order to do this we need to have a fairly accurate understanding of what moves each individual participant. This understanding we can build up via ongoing one-on-one conversations with each participant. The task then becomes to frame the assignment to make it a juicy plum for all participants. Depending on the assignment at hand, this can be challenging.

We also need to build communality between group participants. Any shared interests must be exploited and we should also make good use of shared history in company context. However, differences between the participants should not be underplayed. Differences should instead be framed in such a way that they serve the interests of the participants. Not last we must ensure we communicate in words and actions to participants in a motivating way about the assignment. If we ourselves do not have much confidence in the assignment and the group process, we won’t be able to keep group participants motivated and results will reflect this.


In an organization with smart, talented and powerful individuals, conflicts are bound to exist from time to time. We need to investigate whether a conflict necessitates intervention: is it potentially large and destructive enough and the parties unable to solve the conflict themselves.

If the conflict is of a caliber where intervention is required, we must understand that our role is not as judge or arbiter, making a decision and enforcing it. In fact such an approach is unlikely to generate any commitment from the parties. Rather, we should view the task as that of a midwife, helping the parties work their way towards a solution. We may help the parties define the process and time frame to be used in finding the solution and we may put forward ideas participants can build on, but we do not define the solution. The solution when reached is more likely to be carried out by the parties, because their commitment to it rests on their having defined it themselves.


Having very talented, smart and powerful people in our organization can be a blessing, but it can also be a challenge to provide the kind of leadership that these people will accept. Our approach needs to rest firmly on respectful relationships and building trust by ensuring them in words, actions and involvement that we have their interests at heart. We can only lead smart, talented people, if they let us. It is a very sobering thought.

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