As the author of this column, I receive a number of questions each month on the topic of leadership. Manu asks how young men and women in India can be taught to think about leadership. A pharmacy director in the U.S. is having difficulty firing up a small number of workers who are not engaged in their work. Linda wants tips on being more decisive. An executive leading a crossfunctional team asks: “How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and focused on our goals when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?”
The answers to these questions begin with the very basics. What is the definition of leadership?
In my experience, “business leadership” is often associated with a CEO of a company who made a lot of money and got rich in the process. Yet when clients tell me their company needs leadership, impressive job titles and large salaries aren’t what they’re after.
We say, “So-and-so is a born leader.” No such thing. Leadership is a relationship between a person and a group plus the skills to guide the group to success. As with any relationship, success depends on both parties. One group’s stellar leader may fail utterly when leading another group. The lack of competent leadership is the number one complaint I hear from non-CEOs.
Rather than just study leaders (thousands of books on leadership cover that ground), I’ve asked hundreds of people who they follow and why. They say leadership is emotional; it’s about inspiration, motivation, and connection. Unlike management, it doesn’t lend itself to systems, structure, and traditional classroom teaching. What inspires people to follow is surprisingly consistent, and surprisingly simple. But be forewarned: Simple doesn’t mean easy!
Establishing the leadership relationship
Call it “vision,” or “mission,” but it all boils down to one thing: First and foremost, people look to leaders for direction. Only by knowing their organization’s direction can people apply themselves to achieve their goals. It needn’t be formally stated; the leader’s actions and decisions convey the direction to the company. The direction needs to pervade every decision and conversation within the company, and it’s the leader who makes that happen. Providing direction for others is a key to creating a leadership relationship.
Even with direction, people must trust a leader. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. People want the truth from their leaders. Outrage from Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Enron, and many other public scandals were fueled less by the events than by the accused parties’ cover-ups and lies. When Salomon Brothers covered up improper trading in an early-1990s scandal, it fueled the flight of a billion-dollars’ worth of customers as people lost trust in the organization. Warren Buffett rescued the company by using complete and total candor with Wall Street and regulators as a way of restoring trust. Far from being a disaster, telling the truth proved astonishingly effective in quickly restoring the company’s integrity, with a minimum of fines.
Leaders must have integrity, establishing clear values and living those values. One of my clients worked for a newly public company whose CEO urged employees to hold their shares to keep investor confidence high. He then sold several million-dollars’ worth of his own shares. He responded to his employees’ feelings of betrayal saying, “It was just a small percentage of my holdings.” But that didn’t matter! He contradicted himself by selling shares while exhorting his employees to hold theirs. It killed his leadership.
Interestingly, the key is having actions match values, more so than what those values are. If one leader values quality and another values speed-to-market, they will simply attract different people to their organizations. But in either case, they must live their values consistently.
Consistency is another vital leadership element. When a leader changes direction with the market fad-of-the-day, or when his or her values shift according to the latest public opinion polls, people stop following. People want dependable leaders who provide a touchstone in times of change. You may ask: In a world of constant change, don’t we need to shift and adapt? Of course. But you must choose a direction and values that stay stable even while adapting your tactics.
A software company once had a company vision, “We will produce the best ABC widget for DOS the world has every seen.” It was a great vision statement, until Windows squashed the company out of existence. The software maker’s vision was so narrow it couldn’t adapt to change. A mission of, “We will solve the ABC problem for computers worldwide” would have been flexible enough to keep the vision while adapting to technological evolution.
Lastly, followers need to feel connected to their leaders. Leaders almost always connect through shared values; that’s one reason followers leave when a leader doesn’t live his or her values. Helping people feel they are part of something much greater—giving them a personal vision—is another strong tactic. For instance a leader in the healthcare industry may say, “You’re not just joining our company, you’re becoming part of transforming the world of healthcare.” Recognizing and rewarding employee achievement helps cement the connection. On the other hand, taking credit for others’ work is a powerful connection destroyer.
I was surprised by this framework’s simplicity—direction, integrity, consistency, and connection. But its simplicity hides how difficult it is to pull off. It’s difficult because these qualities can’t be faked for long. Creating a direction is easy. Integrating it into every breath and decision is not. Choosing values is easy. Aligning behavior, decision making, policies, and organization around those values is not. Consistency is easy … until things don’t go quite as planned. And connection is easy until things get busy and instinct tells us to stop all this fluffy foolishness and just get down to work.
Building the organization
Direction, integrity, consistency, and connection create the leadership relationship. That’s a first step in building an organization, but it doesn’t address the issue of how leaders make their organizations successful. History is littered with great leaders who didn’t have a clue how to turn their leadership into an enduring business. Let me share some of the highlights:
- Focus, focus, focus. Know what the organization should be doing and ruthlessly say “no” to anything that would be a distraction.
- Play to individual strengths. Understand the abilities of everyone you hire and make sure their job plays to their strengths. Don’t spend too much time developing weak areas. If someone can go from good-to-great in their strength, that’s more valuable to the organization than taking someone from poor-to-acceptable. Build organizational competence by teaming up complementary skill sets. Ditto for yourself; know what you’re good at and can do well, and spend most of your time doing that.
- Play to organizational strengths. Stick to what you’re good at as a company, and get very good at it. If you’re a great software company, opening a chain of high-end fashion clothing stores won’t build a strong organization.
- You can train people for skills, but it’s much harder to hire attitude. Most companies hire for specific job history or resume keywords, which is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
- Bring out the best in your people. Hire the best, give them a common direction, and let them do their job. You’ll have a much stronger organization than if you make yourself too important. Remember: Every time you hire someone who isn’t as smart as you, you lower the average IQ of the company.
My favorite books on building organizations are Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (it also touches on the “Level 5” leadership character qualities that correlate with success), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization by Peter Senge, with Bryan Smigh, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. All are research-based, easy to read, and have enough great material to keep you building organizations well into the next century.
Most of this column has concentrated on the “soft” skills. When it comes to leadership, I remember what the COO of a multibillion-dollar company once told me: “At the end of the day the financial and strategic issues are there but they are reducible largely by analytics…the people and process issues are not.” If your goal is to become a successful business leader, your route will be smoother if you spend some time working on relationship skills and “softer” aspects of leading. Because at its heart, leadership is nothing more and nothing less than inspiring others to follow your dream and doing what it takes to make possible their success.