My 4-year-old son, Miles, has a habit of asking deceptively simple questions, as most children do.
The questions seem simple at first blush, until I try to answer them. For instance, “Why did the dinosaurs die?” or, “What’s the difference between girls and boys?” or, “Why did God create the Devil?”
Those are all obviously beyond me.
But even when he asks something I think I know, I find I know nothing at all. Last week he asked, “What is the earth made of?” and I was sure I had that one in the bag. Minerals, right?
“So, what are minerals made out of?”
“What are atoms made out of?”
Protons, electrons, and neutrons.
“But what are those made out of?”
At this point, I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely curious or just busting my chops. But then I got curious.
I had a vague sense of quantum physics, that as you peel away the layers of an atom, at the very bottom of everything is something that can’t be measured—pure energy. Even if you try to measure it, you change it by the very act of measurement.
Best to let that one go, I thought. So I told him it was a mystery, and he suggested we look for clues, like Scooby-Doo would. I looked for a Scooby-Doo episode on TV instead. But that only led to another question.
“How come they never let Scooby drive?”
Because he’s not the leader.
“What’s a leader?”
I was right back where we started. What is a leader?
I always pictured a great leader to be a skilled, inspirational orator or, failing that, at least a bit bombastic. But then there’s thought leadership, the strength of one’s intellect blazing a trail others can follow. Maybe leadership is really a quiet thing, more about deeds than words, a measure of humility, leadership by example.
Seems like there’s an inscrutable, inherent quality to most leaders that can’t be taught. Sure, you can take courses. You can pluck up all the confidence you never knew you had, memorize management training books, attend a Tony Robbins seminar, get your MBA, learn public-speaking skills. But in the end, if it doesn’t come naturally, it might never come at all.
So, what makes a leader? Maybe it’s that rare combination of emotional intelligence and business acumen, equal parts diplomat and entrepreneur, illustrated by our cover story on Executive of the Year Julie Smith, on page 30. That’s a pretty good start.
Or maybe leadership is the ability to speak your mind regardless of the consequences, to believe in your convictions when nobody, not even your dad, agrees with you. As you’ll see in our feature on Rising Star of the Year Billy Pettit Jr., on page 36, that’s a pretty good start too.
But here, in my living room at 6:30 a.m., I got tired of thinking about it. So I told Miles that what makes a leader was also a mystery, and I figured that was the end of it. I needed a cup of coffee, and I was just about out of the room when he said, “Dada, are you a leader?”
Damn. I thought I knew that one too.