What determines the strength of a wheel?
An ancient Chinese story, retold by Phil Jackson, coach of the phenomenally successful Chicago Bulls basketball team, makes this point rather more emphatically. In the 3rd century BC, the Chinese emperor Liu Bang celebrated his consolidation of China with a banquet, where he sat surrounded by his nobles and military and political experts. Since Liu Bang was neither noble by birth nor an expert in military or political affairs, some of the guests asked one of the military experts, Chen Cen, why Liu Bang was the emperor. In a contemporary setting, the question would probably have been: “What added value does Liu Bang bring to the party?”
Chen Cen’s response was to ask the questioner a question in return: “What determines the strength of a wheel?” One guest suggested that the strength of the wheel was in its spokes, but Chen Cen countered that two sets of spokes of identical strength did not necessarily make wheels of identical strength. On the contrary, the strength was also affected by the spaces between the spokes, and determining the spaces was the true art of the wheelwright. Thus, while the spokes represent the collective resources necessary to an organization’s success-and the resources that the leader lacks-the spaces represent the autonomy for followers to grow into leaders themselves.
In sum, holding together the diversity of talents necessary for organizational success is what distinguishes a successful leader from an unsuccessful one: Leaders don’t need to be perfect, but they do have to recognize that their own limitations will ultimately doom them to failure unless they rely upon their subordinate leaders and followers to fill in the gaps.