It’s a Question of Leadership
by Karen Sella of FutureSense, Inc.
There is no question that most business people are familiar with the concept of leadership. There is certainly an abundance of materials on the subject. In fact, there are articles, books, and manifestos ad nauseam on leadership. We’ve heard about leadership principles, styles, and habits. We’ve participated in leadership surveys, assessments, and training. These days, even airline magazines are featuring articles on leadership, and every third seat is filled with a self-proclaimed leader on something. There is no excuse, it would seem, for any of us to be ignorant about leadership.
Everyone, it appears, has something to say on this topic, and people are saying a lot of wonderful things. Of course, people are also saying a whole lot of the same wonderful things. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What We Already Know About Leadership
Let’s review what we already know. Some of the more common qualities used to describe leaders include:
Purpose—leaders express and exemplify a common purpose for a greater good that inspires others to join in its fulfillment. They passionately and effectively engage people to pursue a common vision.
Integrity—leaders are trustworthy. They “walk the talk,” their actions are congruent with their words. Their interactions with others are characterized by authenticity, consistency and caring.
Credibility—leaders not only know what they’re talking about, but they consistently demonstrate it. They exhibit leading values, skills, and knowledge. They have expertise and competence in their fields.
Self-awareness—leaders know themselves—how they think, how they act, how they learn—their biases, mannerisms, and thought processes. They reflect on themselves, their values, and their impact. They set personal goals and work towards self-improvement.
Learning– leaders take responsibility for their own learning and foster the learning of others. They are informed and informative, constantly seeking to improve performance with valid feedback. Leaders view every experience as an opportunity for learning, including their mistakes.
Ok, so we all know that leaders are purposeful, credible, and self-aware. They have integrity and they like to learn. They provide hope, inspiration, and direction for others. So far so good. We recognize the fundamental standards for leadership. With all the books and binders, the inspirational tapes and motivational speeches, the training and development programs devoted to the subject, one hopes that we know something about it.
In fact, based on everything we already know about leadership, there’s hardly a need for any more writing on the subject. So why, you may well ask, does this look suspiciously like another article on leadership? (Excellent question! I’m so glad you asked.) Even with all of our leadership knowledge, most of us still find it challenging to effectively and consistently lead.
The Real Question About Leadership
The real question we should all be asking about leadership is: how is it possible to know so much and fail so often? Despite the overabundance of wisdom about leadership, many of us frequently fail in our attempts to lead. In fact, many of us simply fail to attempt to lead in the first place. This doesn’t mean that we are not high-performing and successful individuals. We may even have coveted leadership roles within our organizations. But how many of us sincerely believe that we are great leaders? How many of our people would agree that we are great leaders?
Think about it. How many of us can honestly say that we consistently express and exemplify our organizational purpose? That we inspire others to work toward this vision? How many of your current staff followed you to this company? How often do you take the time to ask others what they think about important issues? Do you ask people who may challenge your perspective about the situation? If asked, would your colleagues and employees agree that you care about them as individuals? What do you do on a regular basis to increase your self-awareness and support your personal growth? What do you do on a daily basis that demonstrates your excellence as a leader?
Assuming that most of us are knowledgeable, interested, and making an effort, what prevents us from consistently succeeding in our leadership efforts? Well, historically, leadership has been something of a rarified field, reserved for people that ooze charisma and perform extraordinary feats of unmistakable daring. Some of us are simply unsure of our leadership capabilities. We’ve bought into the outdated notion that people have to be charismatic and larger than life to be great leaders. However, most of us know that this is simply untrue.
In fact, recent research suggests that great leaders frequently lack charisma. As Jim Collins noted after studying numerous successful executives, “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare—and unstoppable” (Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review, January 2001). Indeed, for every George Washington, there is an Abraham Lincoln.
So much for charisma. Let’s face it, the main reason that our leadership efforts don’t meet with more success is that many of us are just plain lazy. We lack the discipline it takes to become great leaders. We’ve read the books. We’ve attended the seminars. We’ve done the personal inventories. Most of us are smart, educated, and well intentioned. Indeed, our pursuit of knowledge is commendable. Yet, we regularly fail to apply our knowledge with any real diligence. Despite our tremendous interest in leadership, our wealth of knowledge on leadership, and the profusion of programs for leadership, most of us do little more than talk about it.
It’s not that we don’t want to be great leaders. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a great leader? It’s just that we don’t have to be great leaders. The truth is that we can have perfectly respectable—even successful—careers without ever developing ourselves as leaders.
That’s ok. We’ve been conditioned to forego dreams and daring for security and success. Anything beyond that takes extra effort and requires additional risk. Besides, being a leader is a big commitment, and followers are frequently harsh critics. As long as we don’t mistake ourselves for great leaders, or complain about the leaders we choose (yes, choose) to follow, security and success are certainly worthy objectives. Leadership is not for everyone.
However, if we see opportunities to improve the way our companies do business and the way we work together—if we recognize the need for change and we sit quietly waiting for the leaders, or even worse, complaining loudly about the leaders—maybe it’s time for us to do something more than talk about it. Perhaps we should take responsibility for something more than our own security and success. After all, if our own security and success come at the expense being true to our own beliefs, or come at considerable cost to others, is it really worth it?
Yes, leadership requires a greater commitment. It’s not enough to know the material. As aspiring leaders, we have to work harder at applying what we know. Every day. To be great leaders, we have to lead—express and exemplify the shared vision, stand for something greater than ourselves, risk personal security and success in order to fulfill the collective dream. We know what we need to know. The real question is: will we choose to do what we need to do?
What to Do with What You Know
As we’ve established, leadership is hard work. It doesn’t happen over night. Like personal fitness, leadership requires consistent and vigilant practice over time to achieve any meaningful results. After all, knowledge without application is about as useful as the exercise machine gathering dust in the garage. If you are genuinely interested in being a great leader, develop your leadership practice—and practice. Here are a few steps to get you started:
First, commit to some personal and professional development. Decide that you are going to dedicate some time each week to learning about yourself as a leader and practicing leadership.
Second, get to know yourself. There are several personal inventories designed to help you become more aware of your personality, learning, and leadership styles—Myers-Briggs, Colbe Index, etc.
Third, review what you know about leadership. Learn your leadership style, your company’s perspective on leadership. If you haven’t already done so, go ahead and read an article or two on the subject. Purchase a book. Here’s a list of resources:
Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review (January 2001).
Max DePree, Leadership Jazz, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992).
Peter Drucker. Management Challenges for the 21st Century, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994).
Don M. Frick & Larry C. Spears, Editors. The Private Writings of Robert K. Greenleaf: On Becoming a Servant Leader, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996).
Willis Harman, Global Mind Change: The Promise of the Last Years of the Twentieth Century, (Indianapolis, IN, Knowledge Systems, 1988).
Ronald A. Heifetz. Leadership Without Easy Answers, (President and Fellows of Harvard College: Unite States of America, 1994).
James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner. Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1993).
Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Connective Edge: Leading in an Independent World, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996).
Fourth, identify your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Be honest. Ask some trusted colleagues for a candid assessment of your skills as a leader.
Fifth, set weekly and monthly leadership goals for yourself. Ask yourself, what do I really need to practice? How am I going to apply what I have learned about leadership to my work? Remember, signing up for gym membership is easy—it’s the regular workouts that are the hard. Whether it’s increasing your professional credibility or communicating your company mission, determine two or three specific, measurable, and actionable goals. For example:
• To become more knowledgeable of multiple perspectives on a particular topic, you might ask at least one person daily to share their perspective about that topic.
• To increase your competence in your field, you might decide to enroll in a class one night a week.
• To show appreciation for your colleagues, you may elect to thank at least one person daily for something he or she has done.
Sixth, track your progress. Check off your leadership “to do” list. Keep a journal. Start a leadership community of practice. Hire a coach. Do whatever it takes to ensure that your leadership practice stays at the top of your list.
Seventh, recognize your success. No matter how small, every time you follow through, it’s worth acknowledging.
So congratulations on knowing something about leadership! Now, let’s do something with all of that knowledge!