June 20, 2019
Becoming and Exceptional Leader
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An academic described leadership as the initiation and direction of endeavor in the pursuit of consequences. I prefer to simply define leadership as a process whereby one individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. That definition presumes a) that you have followers and b) that both you and your followers know where you are going. Franklin Roosevelt said: “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.” And one would prefer that the followers are willing followers.
During my years in the business world—in all corners of the world—I have observed a wide variety of leaders operating in several different societies and cultures. Despite the significant cultural differences, those who were successful seemed to display certain behavioral patterns and leadership qualities that allowed them to stand out and achieve exceptional organizational and personal gains. They were consistently influential in meetings with almost everyone and inspired their employees to win.
Over the years I have studied and observed many different types of leaders to understand the attributes, techniques and behavioral patterns that represent common characteristics of successful leaders. These characteristics define who you must be, things you must know and what you must do. If you can master these attributes, you will develop an executive stature that is necessary to be successful as a leader.
Jack Welch said: “Control your destiny, or some else will.” And it’s true. It’s your life and you should be in control of it to the best of your ability; if you are not, you had better know who is. Don’t be a passenger in life; instead, get a good grip on the wheel. Of course, if you take control of your destiny, you must also take responsibility for it. That may seem a bit scary, but would you rather consciously or subconsciously abdicate that responsibility to someone else and hope it works out? So far, I have never met a person that I would rather have control over my life than me.
Life is a continuous series of choices and everyone must make them. The ability to think, to evaluate, and to choose is the supreme characteristic that makes you human. Every choice leads inexorably to right or wrong, good or bad, success or failure—according to how one defines those terms. Every choice is a building block of the structure of your life, and every one counts, whether large or small. We have the free will to either create destructive social environments through ignorance and maliciousness or, through enlightened self-interest, to create a free and civilized society in which we can achieve our values and flourish. By making good choices you can live a flourishing life as a proud, independent sovereign individual with inalienable rights.
Choices and decisions should follow a structured process: 1) define the problem or situation that requires a decision, 2) carefully assess the facts; 3) evaluate the available alternatives, and, finally, 4) select the best one. When a decision is made according to that process, it will be a good decision, regardless of the outcome—good because the correct process was followed. If the outcome happens to be different from what was expected, then it was the wrong decision; however, it was nevertheless, still a good decision because the correct decision-making process had been followed. Life does not always turn out as expected despite our best efforts.
On the other hand, decisions based on gut-feel, intuition, premonitions, mystical revelations, superstitions, or emotions are inherently bad decisions, regardless of the outcome. In these instances, if the outcome meets expectations, it must be attributed to good luck rather than good judgment.
There are a few techniques that I have found useful in maintaining control of my destiny over the years. I share them with you in the hope that you too, will find them useful.
Now that you have control of your destiny, let’s examine what it takes to become a good leader. First, it is important to understand that leadership is not management. Leaders lead and managers manage. Managers kill the alligators, whereas the leaders drain the swamp, so the alligators go away and quit biting you in the butt. Consider another example. An airline pilot is a manager—he manages the plane in flight. The leader is the one who selects the crew, determines the destination, the flight plan, and convinces the crew it’s the right thing to do. Leaders make plans and organize the resources, and the managers execute the plans.
Of course, there is overlap between the two disciplines, and depending on the situation, a manager can lead, and a leader can manage from time to time. However, it is important to distinguish between the fundamental responsibilities of the two functions. The best salesman seldom makes a good leader of the sales department, and there is no guarantee that a good quarterback will be a good coach.
During the early 1980s, the business world went through economic upheaval. During that period, I was able to observe how different leaders and managers behaved as they dealt with the stressful, challenging situation.
Some seemed unable to escape the drudgery of day-to-day trivia; they always looked busy, energetic and active; but careful examination revealed they were usually “fighting fires” and “killing alligators” in a haphazard manner without due consideration instead of preventing the fires and draining the swamp. They never managed to escape the dark shadows of the trees in order to rise up and look down on the forest in the clear light of day.
In contrast, others seemed to handle difficult challenges effortlessly with dispassionate thinking, a clear sense of purpose, and a laser-like focus on achieving results, never losing sight of the overall goal. They had the natural talent to see and understand the long term and the “big picture,” even in stressful situations.
If you seem to be continually focused on the immediate moment, or if you often feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day activities going on around you, or if your thoughts seldom go beyond next week or next year, you may not have this talent.
Those who have this talent think deeply about life and other important matters. You know who you are. You have little concern for the details and trivia of your day-to-day existence. Of course, you deal with them as best you can and kill the alligators because they are an irritation, but your main focus is draining the swamp, so the irritations go away.
You monitor world events and focus on doing the important things that you must do to control your life and improve your situation. You maintain focus on controlling your destiny and achieving your long-term aspirations and what you must do to live a flourishing life. And you know that if you do not control your destiny, someone else will—and that is unacceptable.
Leaders with this talent maintain a view of the big picture while at the same time paying attention to the details. They scan the horizon and maintain an overall perspective of the broader situation in general, and about the organization in particular. An effective leader comfortably works within the forest amongst the trees, and routinely gets in her helicopter and rises above the trees to look down on the forest. This talent has been called the “helicopter effect” and it is critical for effective leadership.
Some will disagree, but in my 40 years of experience, I have observed this is a talent you either have or you don’t. I specifically call it a talent, rather than a skill, because, although it can be developed and honed, it can seldom be learned. Use this talent to your advantage, and be alert for people with this talent … they are potential leaders.
In my experience there are only two fundamental styles of management, namely a) the autocratic style, and b) the participative style. I adopted the participative style early in my career because that is what works about 95% of the time.
The leader who follows the participative style sees himself as a Coach. The responsibilities of a coach are to select the team members, provide support in the form of proper tools, training, and motivation, and to create a working environment that is conducive to high productivity. Another important responsibility of the coach is to develop a “game plan”—a strategy for execution that defines where they are going and how they are going to get there.
It is important to understand that the coach is responsible for the success of the team, but he never “scores”; he can only create the system and environment that allows the players to score. In order to be a winning coach, all players must work together as a close-knit team, perform their individual responsibilities, and execute the plan.
An autocratic leadership style may be effective in an adversarial working environment or an emergency situation; however, in my experience, a command and control management style is not appropriate when the employees are some of the brightest knowledge workers on the planet. Knowledge-workers never responded well to autocratic leadership, nor do they perform well in a culture of fear and intimidation. Therefore, I strongly recommend you learn, adapt and practice a participative leadership/management style if you expect to succeed.
What kind of example do you set for your people? The example you set affects the quality of the people working for you, as well as the quality of the work they do. And it also influences the way your supervisors manage their teams and the results achieved by levels way below you. Your leadership behavior has a heightened impact as it is copied and practiced by others—either for good or for bad.
Paying particular attention to the following key habits will ensure that you are setting a good example that will inspire dedicated willing followers who enjoy their work and want to be part of a winning team.
The first and best way to be supportive is to give the employees what they need to do the job, including a clear strategic direction. Then loosen the reins so they can all charge off in the same direction with the tools, training, motivation, and encouragement. As they develop their own momentum, you, as the leader, must always be there to lend support when needed.
You must be seen as accessible, so the team members feel welcome to come to you for help, either with an inquiry, complaint, status report or a personal problem. In any organization there are rumors and you should be open and willing to discuss how much truth there is behind the rumors. Keep them filled in on what is happening with respect to how the year is unfolding, the plans for the division and the outlook for the coming months.
Being supportive also means sticking up for your team. For example, during times of urgent family situations or the need for extra time off, make exceptions from time to time when justified. Monitor their work-life balance and make sure they do not burn out because of overwork or other stress factors. Protect them from difficulties with other managers.
Acknowledge ideas that offer value to others and share them up to the hierarchy. Give your team appropriate access to your boss and others higher up the line. If that is not appropriate, be sure to give credit to your team for their accomplishments. Remember, as the coach, you do not score, it’s your team members that get the work is done and score.
From time to time your people will get an opportunity to be promoted into other work groups. In these instances, be sure not to be an obstacle to their progress; in fact, you should encourage them to accept the opportunity.
By following these guidelines, you will be a supportive boss your employees can count on, and you will be able to count on them too, to do their best.
Communicating effectively covers a very broad subject and I do not intend to review the “how” of communication. Instead, I want to review the way in which you should communicate to be a good leader.
Having an “open-door” policy is one way. This communicates that you are approachable, which promotes more frequent, casual and open dialog. Consequently, from these casual conversations, you can often pick up reactions to what is happening; and watching body language can often indicate what is not being said. A positive atmosphere of candor and trust will become evident as people gain a heightened level of security and self-assurance.
When you have an open-door policy, it is important not to circumvent the chain of authority. There is also the risk that you may become overly tangled in personal problems, although there are times when it can be beneficial. And make sure people do not camp on your doorstep to discuss trivial matters just to fraternize with the boss. However, be particularly careful not to let your comments and behavior deter people from asking questions that need to be asked.
As a leader, it is particularly important that you establish informal sources of information throughout the organization to learn about pending events and developments before they happen. This can be tricky. Try to maintain networks with well-placed informants who will alert you to what they are doing and thinking. Usually, the more you probe for information, the more readily it will come to you. And since much of the information may be tentative or confidential, be careful who you share it with and never disclose sources, otherwise, you will be cut off. If you can establish informal lines of communication you will be seen as someone “in the know,” which will keep you closer to the mainstream.
We all have our own opinions about how to best evaluate performance. Over the years I have come to the belief that the formal annual interview to discuss an employee’s performance does more harm than good. Feedback on performance must be an on-going practice throughout the year on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Some employees need more than others. The feedback that is specific, timely, frequent and personal will improve performance.
Feedback should always be aimed at providing employees with the information they must have to do a better job. It may be verbal; it may come from a chart on the wall or a scoreboard of some sort. The people must learn about the results of their work to know how well they are meeting expectations. Whether or not they feel temporarily happy or unhappy is irrelevant.
Feedback on performance is either objective or subjective. Objective feedback is usually quantitative, and subjective feedback is qualitative. Quantitative Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be established when objectives are set and updated as the situation changes. These KPIs become milestones against which the employees can objectively evaluate their own performance in an impersonal and non-judgmental way.
Key Performance Indicators can also be established for qualitative work if careful thought is given to exactly what is expected. The KPIs can describe in writing the expected outcome. Have the employee participate in writing the KPIs and milestones so there is less subjective judgment required when the time comes for an evaluation. These KPIs will usually focus on the quality of the work, rather than the quantity, but even quality can be quantified with clearly written statements. It’s usually advisable to evaluate qualitative work more frequently than quantitative work because the results are less specific and more difficult to judge.
All significant feedback should be documented. The design of the forms used is not important; however, the information communicated in both directions (3600 evaluations) should be written down for future reference.
The most important factor in evaluating performance is to make sure there is no doubt about what is expected. That is why it is so important to have a clearly written and communicated Strategic Plan with Critical Success Factors, Goals, Objectives, Individual Work Plans and KPIs.
Be careful not to be labeled as a “Tough Boss.” Tough bosses always get fired eventually. They usually earn that label by criticizing people in public, making key decisions without collaboration, having a volatile temper and using abusive language. They foster internal competition and play favorites at their whim to keep people insecure. And they are rarely satisfied even when subordinates achieve their goals. I worked for one boss that fit this description, and he did not last long.
Fortune Magazine (October 1993) published an article discussing America’s “10 Toughest Bosses” Some were tougher than others, and I would identify a few as demanding rather than tough. I enjoyed working for demanding bosses because you always knew where you stood. They were demanding in the goals they set and the results they expected. They bring out the best in you provided you also have high expectations for yourself. They do not inspire fear and anxiety because they are fair as well as demanding. And they almost always lead successful organizations.
Demanding leaders achieve this balance between high expectations and fairness by developing and practicing four important habits:
If you tend to be a demanding leader, be sure to be fair at all times. Otherwise, your team may jump when you crack the whip, and secretly wait for your failure instead of doing what they can to ensure your success.
Every once in a while, in all organizations there appear signs of discord amongst the staff. If not nipped in the bud, minor disputes can become serious long-standing feuds that hurt the entire organization. Therefore, never wait to take corrective action, hoping the hostilities will be resolved on their own. Get involved and become a peacemaker as soon as possible.
On one occasion I faced a serious management problem as soon as I became President of the organization. Unscrupulous practices had been going on for a while and causing serious discord between management and the union workers. Unscrupulous behavior always poisons an organization and is detrimental to productivity, quality, morale, and general performance. “Bad apples” have to be dealt with expeditiously; otherwise, people assume that unscrupulous behavior is acceptable, and the rot grows.
Being new to the organization, it was critical to make haste slowly and deliberately to ensure that my actions were fair and just. Within a few short weeks, I had discovered what I needed to know in order to make a decision. At that point, I acted to remove the poison, and the organization quickly became revitalized and eager to get back on a winning track.
When dealing with hostilities and discord there are certain guidelines to follow in order to make peace and turn the situation in a more positive direction.
As a leader, you will discover that the drive to achieve is not evenly distributed amongst all your employees. Most leaders continually keep pushing themselves for excellence. When you reach a milestone, you will likely want to set a new target — whether it is higher production, more market share or lower cost reduction. After all, your drive to achieve is one factor that helped you to become a leader.
However, as you look around your organization, you will notice that everyone does not have the same desire to achieve. That is normal. Many have different priorities and have discovered that shooting for the stars is not worth the sacrifices required. Mediocrity applies to most people; nevertheless, they want to perform well and are good employees. Your role as a leader is to motivate your people to reach exceptional performance for their own benefit and for the benefit of the organization.
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“Don’t be irreplaceable.
If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.”
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