Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters
It is fairly obvious that leadership is absolutely critical for an organization’s health. Without good leadership, it is almost impossible for a company to hit its targets. Most CEOs understand this, both innately and consciously.
However, “leadership” is a vague term. What does it mean to be a good leader? We know what good leadership means in politics, but what does it mean in the corporate world? What does a good leader do? What ingredients in the concoction that is leadership are responsible for good performance and cohesion?
Most leadership development programs have an extremely scattered focus, covering a huge range of leadership-related issues.
For that reason, many CEOS are not confident that their investments in leadership training will bear any fruit.
What is needed is a focus on the leadership traits that really matter, those that account for the greatest performance dividends. In this article, this is exactly what we are going to cover: the four leadership traits that account for the greatest percentage of what constitutes effective leadership.
A good leader should be:
The organization is a team. Everyone is there for a particular reason.
Everyone has their own personality and way of thinking. In this hodgepodge of personalities, one can easily lose sight of who is who and what they bring to the table.
This can be demotivating for employees, when they feel like they are not recognized, or that their efforts are being taken for granted.
In truth, people want to feel important, that they are contributing to the greater good, that they are indispensible.
A supportive boss will understand this and ensure employees feel that their boss respects and believes in them.
To better grasp this concept, think of soldiers in battle.
Who are the soldiers fighting for – their country, their loved ones? In the battle, the country is an abstract concept.
No, the soldiers are not fighting for their country or for ideals.
In the battle, when everything is distilled to raw emotions, the soldiers fight for their leader.
When their leader is supportive and makes them feel necessary, the soldiers will be ready to fight to the death so as not to let their leader down.
The same is true of sports. In the heat of a grueling game, the players are no longer playing to win. The concept of winning or losing becomes abstract.
They think about winning and losing during training, but during the game, what really keeps them going is their leader.
This is the value of a supportive, passionate coach/captain who cares about his/her team.
If the coach or captain shows that he cares about the team and the individual members in it just as much as he cares about winning, not one member of the team will want to disappoint him.
A supportive leader has empathy.
He/she does not see employees as mere factors of production. Rather, he/she is able to see the humanity in them, that they are real people with real problems.
Sometimes the issues an employee is going through in his/her life make it difficult or impossible to function at 100% in the workplace – for instance, when an employee is grappling with issues such as illness, divorce, or grief.
Due to his/her high level of empathy, a supportive leader will strive to be understanding.
He/she will offer support to struggling employees and make them feel that they are not alone in their struggle.
This show of support inspires such employees to sort out their issues and get back to optimum performance so as not to let down their boss.
Empathy allows a leader to listen to and understand employee grievances.
An unsupportive boss will be dismissive of employee grievances, something that will probably result in employee apathy, which will in turn hurt the company’s bottom line.
The supportive boss, on the other hand, will give a listening ear to the employees and if it is possible to address the grievances, he or she will do so. If not, the boss will explain to the team why what they are asking for is not possible at that particular moment.
In other words, a supportive boss is good at communication.
This involves two key skills: listening and relaying a message. Listening may be the most important skill in the repertoire of any leader.
It is by listening that the leader understands who his/her employees are, their challenges, and their aspirations. Listening enables the leader to identify problems in the organization and solve them before they become toxic.
Listening also helps the leader access fresh ideas on how to achieve the organization’s objectives – employees on the ground are likely to have more practical ideas on what needs to be done, since they are interacting directly with the customers, equipment, workload, and so on.
The second skill in communication is the ability to relay a message.
This skill is fed by the first – listening. Having listened to what the employees have to say, the leader understands what they need and how to respond in a way that will satisfy them enough to get back.
Furthermore, such a boss will have an easier time when it comes to motivating the team. Since the employees feel acknowledged by this boss, they will be more open to hearing what he/she has to say.
Due to his supportiveness, the entire atmosphere of the organization will reflect his demeanor. All organizations reflect the personality of their leader.
When a leader is supportive, a culture of support, empathy, and care will infuse every single department in the organization. The best way to avoid having a toxic workplace is to install a supportive leader.
Even when supportive, empathetic leaders come to a toxic environment, their presence is transformative – especially when this leader is proactive in bringing the toxic culture to an end.
This trait seems to be in opposition to the previous one, which is why many leaders seem to have one or the other but rarely both.
However, a good leader is one who unites both traits.
A supportive leader cares about people, but a results-oriented leader cares about reaching targets, making profits, and so on.
A great leader is one who is able to show empathy and at the same time remain focused on hitting targets – the two traits are not mutually exclusive.
We will fall back on the coaching metaphor because it is so appropriate – the organization is a team. While a coach may care deeply about each of his players, he also cares deeply about winning. That is the target.
The coach must care more about winning than the players because the players draw their motivation from the coach.
A passionate coach is able to communicate and transfer this obsession with winning to his team.
The same is true of a leader in an organization. The organization is far more complex than a sports team. The coach has only one objective – to win.
The organization, on the other hand, has a variety of objectives, each of which the leader must take to heart and do his/her best to attain. It is therefore clear that the job of a leader is to motivate the team to attain great results.
Every organization makes plans. It plans on how to use its money, where to allocate resources, the sales targets it must attain, the profits it needs to reach, and so on. These targets won’t be reached by the leader, but by the organization itself – by employees.
However, what employees care about may be things like salaries and bonuses. It is the task of the result-oriented leader to motivate the entire organization to place its focus on its targets.
It is impossible to reach targets if the business processes of the organization are in disarray. The leader should therefore be passionate about efficiency.
For instance, how many meetings do you attend per week or per day? Are they that important?
The truth is that most meetings are a waste of time and what they accomplish could just as easily have been done on email or via instant messaging platforms.
A results-oriented leader will grasp this quickly and find a way to reduce the number of meetings taking place in the organization. They understand that the fewer the number of meetings, the higher the level of productivity in the organization.
In other words, the results-oriented leader should car about efficiency and productivity in the workplace, rather than simply following standard ways of doing things.
Since motivation is not enough to attain the organization’s targets, the leader will put in the time to streamline the business processes of the organization. This is known as business process re-engineering.
In business process engineering, the organization takes stock of its existing processes and then fine-tunes them or develops new ones which will improve productivity, increase efficiency, and cut costs.
Business process re-engineering involves the following:
- Prioritizing results.
- Identification of the organization’s goals and purposes.
- Keeping the company’s mission in mind in all business processes.
- Stop focusing on managing and start focusing on the customer.
A good example of that is reducing meetings and using email or instant messaging.
As simple and intuitive this might sound, in reality most organizations do not realize how much time can be saved by cutting the number of meetings. Business process re-engineering is about identifying such inefficiencies and fixing them.
A good understanding of project management is also critical for leaders.
Projects are the best metaphor and CEOs who understand how projects work make the best leaders.
A project is an activity carried out by multiple people, that has specific objectives, time constraints, and resource constraints. The organization is like that too.
When you break it down to its core essence, the organization is one long project. Every financial year is a new project with its specific targets and budget.
A leader who understands this will have an easier time figuring out how to organize the company better so as to hit the set targets within the set budget.
In other words, great leaders are project managers magnified to oversee the entire company. The coach metaphor is also appropriate here.
A good coach is like a project manager – every season, the coach must aim at winning a cup for his/her team.
Project managers are, by default, results-oriented because the criteria by which a project is determined to be either a failure or a success is very clear.
Huge organizations are complex and the criteria of failure and success is not always crystal clear.
A good leader distills the company’s objectives to their deepest core to identify exactly which results he/she is expected to attain.
He/she then streamlines business processes to make this possible.
In addition, the leader communicates the company mission with compelling passion to the team so as to motivate them to achieve desired results.
3. SEEKING DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
Organizations are composed of many individuals, some having hundreds or even thousands of people.
Whether it has two or two thousand employees, an organization is bound to be influenced by the different perspectives and personalities of the people who work there.
It would be supremely egoistic for a leader, one individual, to think that his/her convictions and ideas are the only ones that matter, not in an organization of two people and certainly not in one that contains two thousand.
Visionary leaders may have ideas that are more valuable than everyone else’s, but if those ideas do not include the perspectives of others in the team, they are likely to be more idealistic than practical.
As mentioned earlier, employees are the people at the ground, interacting with the end user, the product, the equipment, and the company’s business processes.
If these people’s unique perspectives are not taken into consideration, the organization is likely to have problems at achieving its objectives.
This is a complaint often voiced in many organizations – employees complaining that the top management imposes its decisions on them without consulting them.
Human beings are not machines. People do not like to feel like cogs in a wheel. They do not want to feel that they are merely factors of production, that they do not matter much in the organization.
All people want to feel valued and useful.
A good leader understands this and consults them to see if their unique perspectives will help him/her craft a better plan/solution for guiding the company towards attaining its objectives.
Considering other people’s perspectives does not even have to involve asking them. It can be as simple as putting yourself in their shoes and being empathetic.
When making decisions that impact on people, the good leader asks, “How will this decision affect people? Am I okay with that? Should I tweak the decision so it can have this other impact instead?”
A good example is restructuring, a process which typically leads to mass layoffs of the company’s staff.
Sometimes, layoffs are absolutely necessary as they cut down the company to a size it can afford, cuts costs, and reduces inefficiencies.
However, before laying off staff, a great leader will consider the perspectives of fellow leaders/managers, the employees that remain, the employees that are laid off and their families, and so on.
The leader will ask themselves, “Is the company merely a profit-making factory or is this a family which feels pain when it has to lose any of its members?”
After considering the different perspectives of the affected people, the leader will try to find a solution that both addresses the problem, conforms to his/her values, and whose effect on stakeholders he/she can live with.
The perspectives the leader should consider when making decisions are not just those of internal stakeholders. The leader should also consider the perspectives of customers, partners, shareholders, and so on.
Customers’ perspectives are particularly pertinent and can make or break an organization.
Wise leaders take customer data and research seriously. They monitor customer behavior keenly and observe what their customers are expressing. That way, they ensure competitors don’t get the upper hand in the market.
Customers’ desires are dynamic and a good leader keeps his/her finger on the pulse and steers the company towards what customers care about.
This involves monitoring market trends and making the appropriate decisions to adjust to the changing market.
Seeking different perspectives means that the leader is a reader.
By “reading” we mean having a curious mind that wants to know what is happening in the industry, in his/her own company, out in the field, and the changing regulatory regime.
Such a leader will therefore keep himself informed by constant reading, consulting, and listening.
If the captain does not know what is happening, how can he/she steer the ship to its intended destination safely?
Seeking different perspectives is mainly a means of reducing bias in decision-making.
Even the best minds are susceptible to cognitive biases. Considering different perspectives helps give a more accurate picture.
4. EFFECTIVE PROBLEM SOLVER
Let’s use the battle metaphor.
Business language is full of combative words for a reason – because business and war are similar in many ways.
During a battle, many things that weren’t in the plan crop up and threaten to ruin everything.
However, good generals and commanders don’t give up because situations that were not planned for have come up.
Instead, they take these challenges head-on and try to find solutions without losing sight of their objectives.
The same thing applies in the world of business.
In other words, a good leader is proactive in a crisis.
While others are running around shouting that the sky is falling, a good leader keeps a level head and coolly assesses the situation without getting emotional.
After analyzing the problem, he/she can then come up with a solution that works.
Problem solving is one of the traits no leader should lack.
When a crisis strikes, the person everyone turns to is the de facto leader, even if that person does not have that rank. Authority rests with the person who is able to solve the big problems.
Problem-solving involves decision-making.
Making decisions is widely accepted as the role of leaders.
Making decisions is difficult, since one has to be responsible and accountable for the consequences of those decisions, particularly when those decisions involve risk-taking.
Before the leader makes a decision, he/she has to consider various factors, perspectives, and scenarios.
A good leader is able to forecast different possible scenarios for every course of action. This helps him/her zero in on the best solution to a problem.
A leader stops being useful the day he stops making good decisions or loses the ability to solve problems.
This is why no organization can do without a leader – because it is necessary that there be someone who is responsible for decisions taken.
Sometimes problems need urgent solutions and the leader has no time to analyze or introspect. In such a case, the leader is forced to rely on his/her instincts. Problem-solving instincts are not innate. They are developed, not in-born.
This is why we noted earlier that a good leader must be a reader and someone who considers multiple perspectives.
The more knowledge, experience and understanding of everything pertaining the organization and its environment and stakeholders a leader has, the easier it is for him to make accurate snap decisions, even in a moment of urgent crisis.
It therefore follows that a leader should spend his time preparing for future crises.
The leader must ask: “What can go wrong? What can I do to prevent it from happening? If it still happens, what should I do to alleviate it? Is there a permanent solution to this problem? What knowledge don’t I have right now that would be useful in solving this problem? Which person or book or source can provide me with that knowledge?”
In the company structure, lower-level leaders such as supervisors deal with the problems that come up daily.
As you go up the company’s hierarchy of leadership, the problems to be solved occur less frequently but have a greater impact.
For instance, the CEO’s job is to think about big problems like: “What innovation can disrupt the industry and be a threat to this organization? What new product should we invest in to raise the company’s bottom line? What should we do to meet this year’s targets?”
An organization is like a ship.
Sailing a ship across oceans would be impossible without a great captain.
Similarly, steering an organization to success would be impossible without a great leader. Without great leaders, the organization would never attain its objectives.
Being a great leader involves a lot more than calling the shots and making decisions.
To be a great leader, you need to cultivate four important qualities.
You should be supportive of your team, you should be result oriented, you should constantly seek different perspectives, and you should be an effective problem solver.
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