The Essence of Leadership

Jeff Hough on Jun 25, 2013 4:00:00 AM


Many leadership gurus will tell you that by doing certain things you will become a better leader. To sell more books or get more speaking engagements, they develop lists to follow that help you become a better leader. While some of what they may tell you will help, I believe they miss the mark of what really helps someone become a great leader.

I have long held the belief that there are core elements of leadership that are essential and timeless and those individuals who possess these traits are the ones who really move and influence people. I am reading a book, Eleven Rings, by Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, outlining his philosophies on leadership and the art of dealing with people. Phil Jackson is known for his ability to take a diverse group of individuals and form them into cohesive units that consistently achieve greatness. In the book, he alludes to Parables of Leadership, published by the Harvard Business Review, which attempts to “capture the unseen essence of leadership.”  Using parables based in Oriental culture, the authors examine leadership using a unique medium that encourages introspection and deep thought.


The first parable is about the sounds of the forest. A young ruler is sent to the master to learn the basics of being a good ruler. The master sends the young man into the forest and tells him to return only when he can describe the sound of the forest. When the young man returns, he describes the forest sounds and waits for the master’s response. The master tells him to go to the forest again and listen to what else he can hear. For days the young man sits in the forest listening to the sounds he heard before, when suddenly he begins to hear the sounds he missed the first time. Quickly he returns to the master and reports what he heard, to which the master replies, “To hear the unheard is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler.” Only when leaders truly listen to people’s hearts, can they meet the true needs of their followers.

The second parable compares the effects of a bright fire to that of a flowing river. The master points out that a fire is so strong that it consumes all within its path and its flames dance high, basking in the glory of its power. The river on the other hand is just as powerful as the fire, but goes about its course at a harmonious pace, gently filling in and embracing every crack and crevice. When the fire is done, there is nothing left but a pile of ashes, whereas water gives to all that it touches, eventually flowing to the ocean to provide life to all. Mighty and authoritative leaders eventually lose their power because they consume more than they give, while those leaders who rule with humbleness and inner strength are the springs of prosperity for those who follow.

Pay Attention

The third parable is called the Wisdom of the Mountain. As the wise master is about to lead the young student down from the high mountain top, he asks the pupil to describe what he sees. Upon hearing the description, the master then leads the student down the mountain, stopping at various points asking for descriptions of what the pupil sees. Upon reaching the bottom the master asks for the final description of what can be seen. When the student finished describing what he could see, the master replied, “The road to enlightenment is like the journey down the mountain.”  The lesson being that what you cannot see, can be seen from a different part of the mountain.

The principles of listening for the unheard, leading with humility and seeking different perspectives are core elements of transformational leadership.  Leaders who begin their journey without first looking inward can be successful, but until they truly understand themselves and their strengths and weaknesses, they will never reach their full potential.  Each of these parables carries deep meaning and is worth studying in greater detail for the lessons they hold.  If you would like to read the full parables, you can read them online at  I would also be interested in hearing what you think the core elements of leadership are, so leave your comments below.


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