The traditional view of a leader is of a forceful individual who sets a clear agenda, expects followers to carry out his or her instructions unquestioningly and where challenged bends people to his or her will through sheer force of personality. Somewhat like the Captain of a ship or an army general. Ironically the English word to lead is derived from the Old Norse word “laed” that means to determine the course of a ship. However, in today’s fast-changing society, with the added pressures of economic uncertainty, political stupidity, technological advances and cultural blending, one style of leadership cannot fit all situations. In fact, the concept of leadership must become fluid in order to affect positive change in society and deal with all the complexities in today’s age.
So what is a leader?
This is one of those questions that undoubtedly will get as many different responses as people who answer it. I would postulate a very simple definition:
Leaders help themselves and others to do the right things. Not always because they are the easiest thing to do but becuase they are inherently right.
The process by which a leader achieves this ultimate goal, the traits they need to possess or the skills they need to learn are not and should not be fixed – only the end goal of bringing out the best in yourself and others should remain fixed.
You must be able to lead yourself in order to lead others, inspire yourself in order to inspire others, follow your own process in order to showcase why others should do likewise.
Being a leader has nothing to do with the position you hold.
Being a leader has nothing to do with the title you get to print on your business card.
Being a leader has nothing to do with your gender, cultural or religious pre-dispositions we are often born into.
Being a leader has nothing to do with the skills or traits you display as a person.
Being a leader has nothing to do with how long you have served in any given position.
Yes, these things will provide you a potentially easier opportunity to display leadership but they in no way make you a leader. Your response – specifically your response with regards to selflessly striving towards bringing out the best in yourself and others is what will make you a leader.
So how does this response manifest?
I am sure in your mind you are thinking that what I have mentioned sounds awesome but is it practical? Is striving towards helping yourself and others achieve and do what is right not inherently what people do? In part that is true but what set’s a true leader apart is the intentional nature with which this goal is pursued. In that context I want to unpack six intentional and inter-related practices, that will help create a better business leader.
1. Strategic goals are as much about purpose as they are about profit.
Last year was a year that was littered with large corporate scandals. Your Steinhoff’s, KPMG’s & SAP’s of this world were exposed to have been less than ethical in their business dealings. Yet for every Steinhoff, there are 10,000 good companies. And most companies and the leaders in these companies are trying to do the right thing.
Business is inherently a deeply human institution, but its purpose is not to make as much money as possible. Money is an outcome. Money is a hygiene factor. Money does not inspire people to act – it motivates them to act in much the same way as poking someone with a pin will motivate them to cry out in pain. Purpose and inspiration is something else. As business leaders, we need to put purpose back into business.
Leaders do this through defining the value they wish to create in a tangible, human way. Awesome leaders then communicate this value and vision clearly and consistently and ensure the creation of value for all stakeholders — money and profits follow.
2. Growing and inspiring people requires focusing on the whole person, not just the one who works in your business.
In today’s society, there is this cult-like pursuit of replicating Silicon Valley. Companies focus on providing free food and foosball tables, massive staff team-building and company bars. This approach might work in cult-like atmospheres, engaged on the cool work happening inside of the world’s most innovative companies but for most companies employees, this only makes the crappiness of their job slightly more bearable. And while this approach might make people less likely to leave it will make them no more likely to ‘go above and beyond’.
Leaders recognize this and recognize that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to growing and inspiring people. They engage people on an individual level and treat each person with respect and empathy. Awesome leaders even go so far as to adapt jobs, processes or their entire organisation to fit the talent they have.
3. People model themselves more on what you do than on what you say – so do what is right.
People will pick up on the verbal and non-verbal expressions that reflect your state of mind, so leaders need to take responsibility for the atmosphere they create and shape it with their own behavior. This can be as simple as your posture and demeanor when you arrive at the office in the morning, or more systemic like outlining values and protocols for working with each other.
It’s also important to practice what you preach. You can’t expect your staff to work harder than you’re willing to. Once in a while, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Respect doesn’t come from your position – you have to earn it. This is done in the trenches not in the boardrooms. Nothing sums up better the responsibility you have as a business leader than a quote by Steve Jobs:
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
4. Measure your success as much by what you achieve as by the relationships you build.
When most people think of great leaders they think of the person’s actions that they associate with them being defined as a leader. They think of Steve Jobs creating a iPhone or Mandela navigating South Africa into democracy.
While your individual actions do contribute towards being perceived as a leader truly awesome leaders understand the cohort effect, where peer relationship building is as important to winning as knowledge and power. Good connections and team building are the keys to success. They mentor protégés on talent spotting, creativity, and motivation as well as strategy.
5. Take a chance on unconventional people and enable them to act.
Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of any single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and a commitment to your purpose. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability.
Leaders enable others to act not by hoarding the power they have, but by giving it away. Awesome leaders strengthen everyone’s capacity to deliver on the promises they make to achieve the grand dreams set by the team. A leader exists to make the sum of the parts greater than the whole.
Sometimes this means taking a chance on people who seem ‘unconventional’. Rather hire someone who has accomplished something genuinely difficult over one with formal qualifications. If they are gifted enough, they will rise to the technical challenges. This is a win-win approach since it often helps people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
6. Encourage the heart through showing appreciation.
The climb to the top is arduous and steep, and people become exhausted, frustrated and disenchanted. They are often tempted to give up. Genuine acts of caring draw people forward. People want to know that their leaders believe in them and in their abilities to get a job done. They want to feel valued by their employers, and acknowledging an accomplishment is a great way to demonstrate their value.
Recognizing contributions can be one-to-one or with many people. It can come from dramatic gestures or simple actions.
It’s part of the leader’s job to show appreciation for people’s contributions and to create a culture of celebrating values and victories. Encouragement is, curiously, serious business. It’s how leaders visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance. When striving to raise quality, recover from disaster, start up a new service or make dramatic change of any kind, leaders make sure people see the benefit of behavior that’s aligned with cherished values.
Related Post: How to deal with performance management in a startup
Especially in this new world of millennial values and rapid market change, every business leader and entrepreneur should aspire to unlock the best of themselves and those they surround above all else.