THE BLOG

How Not to Be a Leader

06/03/2013 22:18 GMT | Updated 06/05/2013 10:12 BST

We can't get enough of stories about great leaders.

At the Oscars, Abraham Lincoln walked off with the best actor award, albeit in the rather dashing form of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Coming soon to a multiplex near you is a biopic of another great leader. Steve Jobs, the founder and former boss of Apple, is to be played by Ashton Kutcher. Sadly for the former Mr Demi Moore, the film's mediocre reviews suggest he may not be following in Day-Lewis' footsteps next year.

I'm as much a sucker for a good movie about heroic leaders as the next popcorn-eating cinema-goer. But where I draw the line is at trying to learn my own leadership lessons from them.

The industry of leadership books has never been bigger or more daunting.

Everyone's always trying to crack the perfect formula for leadership. A quick Google search reveals an intimidating array of books on the topic. Numbers seem to be a big theme, from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to the scary-sounding 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. "Follow them and people will follow you", claims the author. If I managed to remember more than five of the 21 'irrefutable laws' I'd be impressed.

Steve Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review called 'The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs'. In it he picked out 14 qualities that made Jobs a great leader. It's worth a read but I'll spare you the detail, except to say my favourite is ignoring focus groups (if only).

Lincoln has also been picked over by leadership junkies. Forbes magazine interviewed Doris Kearns-Goodwin. She wrote Team of Rivals, the book that inspired Steven Spielberg's award-winning movie. The article was called 'Lincoln's leadership lessons'.

Anyone reading the two articles for tips would come away feeling completely baffled. According to Isaacson, Jobs would "bend reality", nagging others until they saw his point of view and delivered on it. Yet Kearns-Goodwin highlights Lincoln's greatest skill as his "quiet self-confidence" and his ability to "absorb and listen well to what people were feeling and thinking." These are two men who seemed to display very different qualities.

Yet both were brilliant, effective and changed the worlds they lived in. For the better, I'd say.

So what is the humble mortal who's trying to lead a team of people, like me (and perhaps you), to make of all this?

If I can offer my one piece of leadership advice, it's this. Throw away the leadership books. Do you think Steve Jobs ever read one? Would Abraham Lincoln have bothered, if such a thing had existed?

First, make sure you really want to be a leader. Do you want to be "the pointy bit of the arrow"? Do you know where you want to go, even if you don't know how to get there? If not, then stop trying to be a leader. You'll be happier in another role.

If you are that pointy bit of the arrow, then find your own way to take people forward that is true to you. Don't be a Jobs. Don't be a Lincoln. And for goodness sake, don't try to learn the 21 Irrefutable Laws. You'll never manage to keep up the pretence and you'll end up a gibbering wreck with all the effort.

Being yourself may not guarantee you'll be brilliantly effective, but it's more likely to make other people want to follow you.

For evidence of that, look no further than Andrew Mason. The founder and chief executive of daily deals website Groupon was kicked out of his job last week. Yet he chose to go out in the manner he ran the business, with honesty and humour.

"After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I've decided that I'd like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding - I was fired today," he wrote.

His letter, which is worth reading, does offer one piece of advice that I'm actually quite willing to listen to. "My biggest regrets are the moment I let a lack of data override my intuition on what's best for our customers," he says. That's a danger we all face.

So there you go. It may not guarantee you'll keep your job, but it may help you keep your sanity. Do it your way and, who knows, they may even end up making a film about you.