Don’t be more than one hilltop ahead


What can Don Quixote teach us about leadership?

Today I saw this post from a leader in the UK I respect and am frequently inspired by, and it had me recall a leadership parable I have often found of value with clients, so will share it now. Who would have thought Don Quixote could teach us about leadership?

Don Quixote by Cervantes was one of the first great novels, published in the early 1600s.

The lead character lived a fantasy life, head in the clouds, detached from reality. Read the story and choose your own description!

He declared himself a knight, seeking chivalrous quests, often to save people from terrible fates.

Now you have a picture of this figure lost in fantasy, imagine Don Quixote on his horse, and imagining in his fantasy world he was the leader of a great army who all followed him as he leads from the front on his horse.

Though in reality his horse was constantly exhausted, he would have considered it a mighty and strong steed, and also his huge (of course!) army of foot soldiers so motivated and inspired and strong that they could keep up with him as he rode off to defeat a distant enemy army.

Irrespective of the imaginary nature of this fantasy army, Don Quixote raced off across rolling hills on his trusty steed, imagining the great victory to come. Up one hill he would go, then down another, always followed by the faithful Sancho Panza. After a time he stopped at the crest of a hill, looked back and found his army was no longer in sight. He waited, then waited some more, but they never came over the crest of the last hill into his sight.

Sancho Panza, ever the realist, would have turned to him and said something like: “Sir, you rode too fast and too far, they have lost sight of you and can no longer follow”.

You are not a leader if others aren’t following you, you are simply a fool on a horse.

In leading people in your business, you may have a huge vision that can truly inspire. Leadership development is full of such stories. For example, we all know Steve “dent in the universe” Jobs. Such huge visions absolutely can inspire. As Simon Sinek says: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

It is therefore absolutely key that when a visionary leader looks at their organisation and sees a big, bold, brave, transformative vision, that they anchor on that and inspire, engage, enrol everyone around them and throughout their organisation and beyond.

However, and this is a big “but”, such a vision means nothing if your followers can’t keep up with you. Another “tom-ism” is “a leader is someone others choose to follow”, and part of that is to work with your team to break down the vision into manageable steps, to communicate it at as many different levels as people need to bridge teh big vision into what they actually do in their role, and to work at the speed your organisation and people can cope with, even if it is a stretch and they are tired in following you on your horse. Inspired and motivated people can stretch, but be very, very aware of how fast to ride and when, as Sacha puts it, to have “staging camps to acclimatise, {to} assess the conditions before moving on.”

Learn from Don Quixote. I encourage you to dream big. My clients are visionaries looking to see beyond their own vision.

Dream big, be an idealist, a romanticist. Being too realistic is no place for visionary leaders. Stretch, dream, but always remember to “do” as well as to “dream”.

Don’t be that fool on horseback.

Learn from him, but don’t be Don Quixote.

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