They tell you to act like a leader. Don’t listen.

You hear it all the time. “Act like a leader.” It’s your boss reading this off a script at the annual sales meeting, trying to encourage you in your performance review, or raising a glass of cheap Prosecco in a rambling toast at the holiday party, recounting the greatest advice they ever got. Okay, it’s your boss, but your boss is probably wrong. Still, bosses keep advising it year after year and generation after generation. And that’s why we’ve got boatloads of bosses in business, but very, very few leaders.

The problem is the traditional model for leadership training in business, politics, sports and the military is obsolete and ineffective. The model is broken. Why do so many businesses act like, quack like, but fail to perform like their market’s leader? Why do so many organizations fail to create real value through relevant differentiation? Why do most markets flooded with a sea of sameness in choices? And why are so many careers stuck in analog in a digital world? It’s about leadership. Sure, the old model is the “tried and true.” Well, it’s been tried, and it isn’t true anymore.

My company at the time, Flying Fortress with the incredible Pat Caddell, developed a model of leadership working with Steven Jobs and Mike Murray of Apple in 1984–5. We were known as Sawyer/Miller Group in politics, and we had been surfing the worldwide information revolution that begat a worldwide democratic revolution. Sawyer/Miller had done and would continue to do a series of global campaigns of insurgents against entrenched (often autocratic) incumbents: Corazon Aquino, Kim Dae Jung, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Vicente Fox, Mario Vargas Lhosa, Shehu Shagari and others.

The force of that revolution was powerful. The campaigns were all but unlosable, but provided great learning. Mike Murray called Caddell and me. “We’d like to have lunch with you guys.”

We met over shoots and greens at a little place near the new Macintosh offices. Those unremarkable, crowded offices were in a failing strip mall in Cupertino, the polar opposite of the multi-billion dollar Starship Apple that is being built now. “You guys understand something that we just don’t get,” Steve said.

Caddell and I were smart enough to keep mulching the shoots and greens and listened to what he had to say next. “You do political campaigns. If you don’t get 50.1%, you go home. I figure you’ve got sharper strategies and sharper elbows than we do in business. Besides, you guys are always the insurgents against the incumbents. That’s us.”

Like the best entrepreneurs, Steven had a strong current of paranoia coursing through his veins. His nemesis, Bill Gates, had used the old New York canard to describe it: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Job had left Apple and opened the Macintosh offices when Apple was still considered an interesting little company that had probably exceeded its “sell-by” date by a few years. Thanks to Steven, Apple II computers were in elementary schools all over the U.S. (and some still are in my home state of Georgia). But he knew that personal computing was on its way to business, big time. That’s where IBM lived and dominated the world. Moving into that market would mean confronting Big Blue.

If you’re under forty years old, you may not even remember the IBM personal computer. Jobs and Murray and their Macintosh team (with a little help from Gates and Microsoft) defeated them. Mike developed the terrific Macintosh marketing in those days, including the greatest TV commercial in the history of advertising with Lee Clow of Chiat/Day, “1984.”

Jobs wanted us to create a model of an insurgent versus incumbent political campaign adapted for business, for the Mac versus IBM campaign. The basic model we called Change-Leadership versus Bigness-Leadership. Like any insurgent campaign, it was a campaign of contrasts:

  • Bigness-Leaders worship size and scope and number-oneness.
  • Change-Leaders value speed and mobility over size. They don’t want to dominate the market, they want to fundamentally change it. Bill Gates’ vision at Microsoft at the same time wasn’t to be number one in operating system software. He wrote it himself: “A computer on every desk, in every home.” Yes, Microsoft didn’t make computers at the time. He was talking about the vision of the bigger revolution, the PC Revolution, that Microsoft helped lead.
  • Bigness-Leaders are heritage driven. They use past successes to guide their strategies today and tomorrow. When the brash young Douglas MacArthur took over the United States Military Academy in 1932, he said, “The problem here is we keep teaching our cadets to win the War of 1812.”
  • Change-Leaders are vision driven. They pick up the track behind them and lay it out in front of the engine toward that idea of a new and better and different future.
  • Bigness-Leaders love the comfort of bureaucracy and the cushion of several layers of org chart below their corner office.
  • Change-Leaders get comfortable with discomfort. They are informal and most often heretical.
  • The central contrast between Bigness-Leaders and Change-Leaders is the idea of change. Bigness-Leaders hate it and resist it. Change means threat to them. Change-Leaders love it. Change means opportunity.

Doing that model for Steven and Mike was super fun. It has also been super successful, and over the years as Flying Fortress, Sawyer/Miller and Core Strategy Group, we’ve gotten to apply it with some super interesting change-leaders: Bill Gates, Michael Milken, Geraldine Ferarro, David Wolfe, Mike Roberts, Tom Phillips, Sergio Zyman, Pat Moynihan, Joanna and Jon Jacobson, Rupert Murdoch, Pat Mulhearn, Walter Buckley, Gordon Eubanks, Alex Gorsky and many others.

This list includes leaders of a lot of big companies (true, some of them were small at the time; and all were going through transformation of one kind or another) that have learned at least for a time to think, plan and act like insurgents, not incumbents. We’ve worked with plenty of start-ups and upstarts, too. Even many of them think, plan and act like Bigness-Leaders. They act like incumbents even though they haven’t achieved incumbency. That’s why eight out of ten start-ups never quite get started.

Chances are, when your boss tells you to act like a leader, they’re telling you to act like a Bigness-Leader. They mean, “Act the way I did on my way to being boss.” After all, that’s how their boss acted. That how the boss before their boss acted and succeeded and got the Tesla and the condo on Hilton Head.

Don’t do it. Don’t be a boss. We’ve got too many of them already. Be a leader:

  1. Define a future that is better and different because of you and your team.
  2. Define a win that doesn’t just disrupt the markets, but also changes them forever.
  3. Learn to manage resources like a miserly start-up.
  4. Learn to focus on the “votes” you need to win the election and change the world; and never break your pick on the impossible.
  5. Learn to be a great communicator; that’s about 75% of the definition of a great leader.
  6. Learn to communicate, coach and motivate inside/out. Yep, preach to the choir.
  7. Learn to pick up the fruit off the ground before the low-hanging fruit to create the magic of momentum.
  8. Learn to love change and teach your organization to love it. If you lose control of the market dialogue, use change to regain it.
  9. Never play by the rules established by the market leader, and never, ever play defense. That probably means that you should respect your boss, but not necessarily follow their lead.

I could go on and on. We’ve learned from the best of the world’s business and political insurgents. That’s why David Morey and I wrote “The Underdog Advantage” back in ’08, and now “The Leadership Campaign,” coming out this spring during presidential primary season. The leadership model is broken, and we want to fix it, one leader and one organization at a time. That’s the best way to change the world. And that’s what we hope you’re going to do.