You've met people who are an accident just waiting to happen. What's the opposite of that?
What we're looking for in a boss, in a CEO to invest in, in a business partner, in a candidate, is formidability. Someone to be reckoned with. Not someone with all the answers, because no one has all the answers. No, we want someone who is magic about to happen.
This is the electricity that follows the star quarterback around. We aren't attracted to him because he's a stolid, reliable, by-the-book playmaker. No, it's the sense that he has sufficient domain knowledge combined with the vision and the passion to create lightning at will. Sarah Caldwell was the same way, bringing a sense of imminent possibility to the work she gave us.
They don't teach formidable in school. They teach compliance and rote and perhaps spin. They teach us to be on the alert for shortcuts and for ways to get away with less. Not surprisingly, the formidable leader takes the opposite tack in every respect. She's willing and eager to take the long way if it gets to the elusive destination. She doesn't need to spin because the truth as she knows it is sufficient.
There might only be two critical elements in the choice to be formidable:
1. Skill. The skill to understand the domain, to do the work, to communicate, to lead, to master all of the details necessary to make your promise come true. All of which is difficult, but insufficient, because none of it matters if you don't have…
2. Care. The passion to see it through. The willingness to find a different route when the first one doesn't work. The certainty that in fact, there is a way, and you care enough to find it. Amazingly, this is a choice, not something you need to get certified in.
Formidable leaders find the tough questions, and then, instead of being afraid to ask them, eagerly decide to seek out the answers. They dig in deep to the details that matter and ignore the ones that merely distract. They bite off more than others can chew but consistently avoid biting off more than they can (because they care so much, it hurts to admit that you've reached the end).
It's not a dream if you can do it.
Paul Graham gets full credit for coining the term. "A formidable person is one who seems like they'll get what they want, regardless of whatever obstacles are in the way." A must-read for startup CEOs.