What Leaders Cannot Do

On a TV show we were watching the other night, I heard a reference to a king I was unfamiliar with, so I Googled it.  The king’s name was Canute (also known as Canute the Great), an 11th century Viking warrior who went on to conquer England and rule as King from 1016-1035.  He is thought to be the first king to rule over a united England; but he is remembered best for one particular incident in his leadership.

One day he heard his courtiers were flattering him, saying he was “so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back.”  Canute was a Christian, and he knew this was in no way true.  So he had his throne carried to the shore of the sea, where he sat as the tide came in and commanded the waves to halt their advance.  They did not.

His point?  That though the actions of kings might appear to be great in the minds of people, they are nothing compared to the power of God.

Canute knew something that far too many leaders in our day do not – that leaders have limitations.  There are things they cannot do.

It is easy to begin to read your own headlines, to begin to think that those around you who speak kind words to and about you are telling the whole story.  The ego begins to puff up, and once puffed up, it’s tough to deflate!  Great leaders, though, know what they cannot do. They understand the limits of their power and their ability, and they don’t try to pretend to be something they’re not.

Leaders, when’s the last time you said “I don’t know” when someone asked you a question?  When’s the last time you apologized to a member of your team and said, “I was wrong?”  Don’t overlook the importance of those simple words – they reflect a heart of humility, and that’s critical to great leadership (as Jim Collins has written about).

Canute’s story was worth reading about – and I believe it’s a good lesson for those of us who lead, no matter the context.

Remember what you cannot do, and don’t try to pretend to be something that you’re not.