What leaders can learn from a bearded wizard
How the Lord of the Rings imparts critical lessons for leaders, trailblazers, and entrepreneurs.
If someone told you that we could learn a lot about leadership and business development from a motley crew of thieves, wizards, elves, and orcs you’d think they were off their meds. But oddly enough, we can.
One character, in particular, Gandalf, is the ultimate leader and offers a great example for other leaders to follow.
Putting People First
One of the most effective elements of Gandalf’s leadership is that he does his sourcing. He is hands-on to the extent that he steps in and partners with HR. He doesn’t throw assessment and selection of talent on others.
Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he goes out to source, select, hire, and even negotiate compensation and benefits with his candidates. When he brings in Bilbo, he brings him as a burglar Into the Fellowship of the Ring. And then Gandalf negotiates with him.
Gandalf doesn’t only do the assessment, selection, appointment, and hiring. He also onboards, retrains, and mentors throughout the journeys of each team member he brings in. He builds them into complete leaders, absolute leaders, with both hard and soft skills alike. Gandalf doesn’t wish to be king, nor does he strive to to take over lands to control. There’s no ego there.
He builds people, he turns people around, he does impressive facelifts; a complete change of characters. And all of a sudden, they realize, “Oh, my God, I can do all that. I never knew it was in me to do all that. Thank you so much, Gandalf!”
Servant Leadership with an Empowering Twist
I’ve affectionately dubbed this leadership toolkit “Gandalf Leadership” partly because of a methodology called “servant leadership.” But, for me, servant leadership is far too hands-off.
In servant leadership, you are supportive, enabling, and empowering. You’re setting the tone to some extent, but you’re delegating; you’re standing behind as a leader.
Conversely, this leader is very much hands-on. Gandalf gets into combat mode to shield and protect his people. There are lots of cases where, in his effort to build a leader, he needs to provide space for people to grow. But whenever there’s a crack or a problem, he’ll be there to get them back.
Gandalf is a leader that runs with the teams. He’s not just a leader – he creates them, too. When they fight together, when there’s any scenario where he’s with his team, he goes first. So, if anyone goes down, it’ll be him first.
Gandalf Leadership is about being hands-on across the board, leading with empathy and continuously empowering and mentoring your team so that you build leaders from the moment of the first contact.
Mistakes are Part of the Process
Gandalf leaders are always there to pick up the ball. In the book, he’d never come to save the day and then leave chaos behind. You would never see him let things break. And that’s because he wants to empower people to make mistakes and then be there to help them fix them. He won’t let things go sideways. But he needs to create people, leaders, and he wants to clear the floor.
You’d never see Gandalf micromanage, force ideas top-down, or direct his opinion. On many occasions when he’s asked a question, Gandalf’s answer is something like, “What does your heart tell you? What do you think? What are your objectives in this situation? Or what outcome would you like to see happening?” He answers with a guiding question (to help his people learn and become leaders). And then he brainstorms based on information he hears.
More Valuable Now Than Ever Before
Right now, we have a pandemic, which is similar. It’s a planetary catastrophe. What I see around me is that, wherever you see compassionate, empathetic, mentoring leaders who are sufficiently hands-on to keep their people on that thread of collaboration and feel a kind of tribal vibe, they enable their companies, teams or houses to get through the crisis.
The whole situation, the entire narrative of the Lord of the Rings, is an apocalyptic crisis that the planet faces. But this pushes humanity, the world of men, to seek peace, to seek collaboration, to seek empathy, to survive. It’s a classic epic. Good versus evil, good versus dark forces as Sauron.
When there’s war, or a pandemic, or any trouble, that’s when humans seek to be together. We bond to comfort each other. The belongingness, the being together in this journey, in this pandemic, makes us stronger. But, for that to happen, you need compassionate leadership. You need ethics; you need morale; you need a mentor.
This entire approach is about a radically new view on leadership EQ. It’s about a profound sense of empathy for others. Common sense, about being able to open up to feel for the other person, respecting their differences, and trying to put yourself in their shoes. There are exercises, courses, and methods that can teach you how to do this.
When you’re engaging with your team, you need to talk to them as grown-ups. Micromanaging, top-down ‘leaders’ are sub-optimal in terms of getting the team to where they want to go compared to the power of many. You need buy-in from your team!
So level with your team. Open up completely, admit to your mistakes and fears, tell them what makes you laugh and cry. So, they, in turn, will open up and follow you even into the fire if needed. When you form that level of dialogue, when you work on outcomes, you can then involve the entire team and democratize. Only then can you get real work done.
Authentic Leadership is Radically Open
When you look at leadership, most people we call managers aren’t communicative, compassionate, empathetic, or ethical. And only few leaders on LinkedIn have a hands-on track record.
Gandalf is a hands-on kind of guy. He didn’t go to West Point. He doesn’t always use friendly language. He is not always polite, but he never lies. And he goes into fight mode, instantly. He doesn’t count to 10 too much. And he doesn’t care about getting his hands dirty.
Pragmatically, what does this mean? A good leader needs to diversify, to be equal, to flatten and create transparency across teams and the broader organization.
More importantly, diversity is the keystone. If it’s a self-reinforcing choir, the same x people from the same village, same gender, then real, valuable communication is never going to happen.
We all need to be a bit different, and we need to listen to each other. We need to be flat, so we’re equal. Then we need to be transparent to each other. To me, that’s real communication— full, radical transparency. Nothing is hidden; it needs to be about how you feel now.
When Gandalf turned his team into a fellowship, he made them feel safe to take risks and make things happen. This leadership style extended beyond the team, created a planetary-grade vanguard of thought and action, and helped to secure their eventual success.
That’s Gandalf leadership.