For me, leadership is not linked to position or accreditation. By that I mean that I have met many non-titled leaders who inspire and influence others without any formal authority over them, and many excellent leaders who got their MBA the ‘hard-knocks’ way. I have met an equally large number of people who hold a leadership position but dramatically fail to lead. They may direct, govern, preside and authorize… but lead? They are missing that particular chromosome.
For me the major difference is personal agenda. The leadership I aspire to is one which motivates others to give willingly of their best. One that believes in driving people to live to their full potential. These are qualities that are not developed in a business school or from the pages of a book but rather in real-time connections with the people and organizations you spend your career days with. Being naturally curious about people and figuring out how to unleash their creativity and determination to resolve new business challenges is the true work of leaders.
So, what are some of the most important and essential lessons I have learned so far in my journey towards mastering this kind of leadership?
1 – All business is personal:
While I fully support a focus on goals and results, I am equally conscious of the manner in which we get there. People; not business models, frameworks or processes; run organizations. People decide whether to lend their knowledge, skills and resources to help execute a plan. Those same people can be stubborn, resistant to change and counterproductive towards an end game they don’t believe in or don’t feel part of. My years of working with Partners and Business Owners have shown me that leaders must have a grand vision but must also make goals individually significant. If the new direction is going to take effort – you’d better make the net result meaningful for each person at an individual level.
2 – Its about them, not you…
A couple of years ago, at the peak of the credit crisis, I witnessed many senior executives burying themselves in emergency cabinet meetings and planning sessions, trying to figure out how to ‘lead’ their business through. Being so focused on how they would help the business to survive, they effectively withdrew from the very people they were leading and closed off the opportunity for everyone to be part of the solution. Furthermore, employees lost valuable work time worrying about what might happen.
Even in positive times, great leaders need to ask their people what they need to find a way through. How they can remove barriers and provide the tools and resources people need to get the job done. Thinking about what your team needs from you (rather than what you need from your team) can help inspire innovation and accelerate change even when a solution seems impossible.
3 – Don’t try so hard
When I got my first shot at a true leadership position, I dutifully adapted to the role. All the books and ‘how to’ guides on effective leadership walked me through those first 90 days and how I needed to set goals and go for the ‘quick wins’. I was excited to finally get the chance to put all my great ideas into action. That is when I discovered that what looks great on paper, often falls apart when you factor in the human element! Somehow my great ideas and mental rehearsals didn’t translate into the inspiring roar of action that I was aiming for! My colleagues wondered what had happened to me. The person who had been a creative and inspirational team member was confusing and awkward as a new leader. Looking back, I was trying so DAMN hard, I forgot that what got me to that point was my instinctive interest in people and their needs. I didn’t need to suddenly develop new methods for engaging people and communicating with them. I’d like to say they came around, and that I managed to get over that initial leadership hiccup, but unfortunately not. It was a lesson learned from failure!
4 – Take care of number 1
It might sound counter-intuitive but this is the toughest lesson most leaders have to learn. Think of it as the oxygen mask lesson. You are not invincible! If you have ever suffered from health issues as a result of working too hard and not taking time to take care of yourself you know all about this lesson. Enough said.
5 – The learning never stops
No matter how successful you become as a leader, the learning should never end. This lesson is harder to apply the more successful you become. Its easy to absorb new ideas and recognize learning opportunities when you are starting out, but the more successful you are, the harder it is to let go of what you ‘know’ and remain open to what might be ‘possible’ or even ‘imaginable’. I see many incredibly successful people close themselves off to new learning because they know better, they’ve tried it that way before and it never works or simply they don’t have time to learn a new approach. Make it a rule to learn something new every year, from languages, to music, to a new software program.
While there are certainly excellent examples to learn from in the field of books and business schools, leadership is truly a personal journey of discovery. You can learn as much from your mistakes as from your successes.What do you think? What are some of the most important lessons leaders must learn outside the classroom or pages of a book?