Worthy Leadership Is Still A Mystery For Many

Recently, I have heard various commentators speaking about how leadership has changed in our new world and, therefore, leaders must update their leadership approach. And whilst there is no doubt that all leaders should continuously strive to strengthen their leadership, what leadership is has not changed since the beginning of time. But leaders do continue to struggle with the self-interest of the many who seek to influence their decisions and actions. 


Active Knowledge Question: 

What would you describe as the one trait that distinguishes worthy leaders?



There is much noise around leadership, and many approaches are recommended for achieving desired outcomes in various circumstances that a leader may be facing. 

But at its core, there is one catalyst that enables worthy leadership: the willingness to place others first. That is, to place the interest and welfare of others ahead of yourself and profit. 

Self-interest and profiteering are the challenges that leaders confront every day until they learn to say No. There is an art in wrestling with challenging decisions in leadership to ensure you stay true to yourself which all leaders should master.

People are often placed in leadership to deliver the agenda or profit of others. In business, profit delivery is typically seen as the most important goal of leadership. Profit and self-interest, however, corrupt and undermine performance and will always deliver a lesser profit. 

Many struggle to understand the principle that focusing on profit delivers less profit, and the simplest analogy is that of an elite athlete. Great athletes focus on their ability to compete, to unearth and bring forth their potential so that they may always deliver their best in every competition. They are not distracted by the score or medals and focus on competing at their best. And through this, they win medal after medal.

In business, the core competitive strength of that business lies in the combined talent and effort of every single person working within and with that business. And leadership’s task is to enable and focus on that core competitive strength. Enabling the potential of others requires that you place them first ahead of yourself and the agenda of others. This is the prime task of leadership.

Purpose And Motive

A worthy leader will only accept the responsibility of leadership if the purpose and motive are righteous. 

Purpose reflects the reason for the business’s existence. Why is it here, and what is it seeking to achieve? All businesses exist within a community, and their purpose should be answered through the need they seek to meet in their communities. Are they here to meet the needs of the community or to meet their own needs? The question of self-interest also applies to every business.

And partnering with purpose is motive. Is its motive to profiteer or deliver the greatest value it is able to its customers? 

A purpose aligned with customer needs provides an endless window to opportunity and a purpose in which the organisation and its people may take pride. A motive of ‘to compete’, that is, to deliver an ever-increasing value to its customers, enables everyone to bring their full potential to the forefront. 

The right purpose and motive permit worthy leadership to flourish. The wrong purpose and motive will crush any attempt to be a worthy leader. 

There is also a symbiosis between business and community. Worthy leaders understand this connection and nurture it to strengthen their business and the community.

Anchoring Your Leadership

The ability of a leader to be a worthy leader rests in the strength of their anchoring as a leader.

I recently spoke to the Three Circles Of Leadership, unpacking the expanding presence of one’s leadership from Self to Others to a Community. From the role of Achiever to that of Enabler to that of Catalyst.

As there are three expanding circles in leadership, there are three anchor points in your leadership which reflect:

  • Your Core – Who you are as a person.
  • Your Way – How you treat with others.
  • Your Destination – What success looks like for you. 

And again, as with the circles, these anchors are interconnected and find strength from each other.

These anchors reflect the values and principles you seek to hold yourself and your conduct true to, including how you see and interact with others. They are, I believe, a reflection and measure of your self-confidence and character. They also evidence your worldview of success. 

Self-interest has no place in leadership, but many people seek leadership as a step ladder to greater personal success. However, self-interest is the antithesis of success. Leadership is about bringing potential to the forefront and applying it. This is why the expanding circles of leadership commence with making yourself an Achiever. And then being able to Enable others to achieve. With the final circle being the Catalyst for an entire Community (organisation) to succeed beyond everyone’s expectations.

Your ability as a leader to be an Achiever-Enabler-Catalyst rests in the strength of your anchoring. Anchoring requires introspection, the willingness to look at yourself in the mirror and see who you truly are as a person. And from that introspection being willing to grow, to continuously grow. Anchoring ensures you will not be disappointed when you look in the mirror.

Choosing Leaders

The importance of worthy leadership in building communities has always been known. Here is some classical Chinese military strategy* from around the eleventh century BC on leadership which I have adapted to the business world: 

With regard to the theme of virtue, it is the CEO and their C-suite leaders that are responsible for setting the example for all their people. Benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, creditability, sincerity, courage, and wisdom are the virtues they must nurture and display. 

Furthermore, the CEO is not only a source of personal example, but they are required to gain an intimate understanding of the needs of their people. Personal emotions are not permitted to interfere with the impartial government and excessive pleasures by the CEO or their C-suite leaders to the detriment of the people are unforgivable. 

Righteousness must always override personal desires and emotions and the CEO must actively share the hardships and pleasures of their people and clearly be seen to be doing so. 

And some language around testing leaders*: 

‘Make them rich and observe whether they do not commit offences. Give them rank and observe whether they do not become arrogant. Entrust them with responsibility and see whether they will not change. Employ them and see whether they will not conceal anything. Endanger them and see whether they are not afraid. Give them management of affairs and see whether they are not perplexed.’ 

These standards for worthy leaders would be a challenge for many leaders today.

Changing Environments

So, while the environment in which a leader must lead is continuously evolving, their role as a leader has not altered. Instead, they are orienteering their way through this landscape using their ability as a leader to achieve success much in the same way as that great athlete has honed their abilities to compete and win against many different competitors.

The trait of humility combined with an attitude to gratitude will allow them to place the interest of others first. And through such draw the real potential of those whom they lead to the forefront and applied in delivering on purpose.


Great businesses and communities are built by leaders who look first to the welfare of those whom they seek to lead. This is the founding principle of worthy leadership and has not nor will it ever change.


*Adapted from readings of Sawyer, R.D. (1993). ‘The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China’. Colorado, Westview Press Inc.

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Richard Shrapnel