Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The leadership journey

Look up "Leadership" on Amazon and you'll find 90,151 results for books, audio tapes and the like.  Type in that same word on Google and up pop 501 million entries.

Yes, "leadership" is a topic oft-discussed, analyzed and taught with some sort of Holy Grail fervor as we who lead and those who desire to lead try to find the answer for becoming the best leader possible.  The problem is, leadership is a very personal journey and one which requires constant refining.  It's a journey perhaps best described by a quote I came across, from Phil Johnson of PJA Advertising, who said, "Eventually, you learn about leadership as you thrash about in the reality of day-to-day life and encounter the unpredictable, the unexpected and the unpleasant.  I've blundered with the best of them.  I've stood on the sidelines with my hands in my pockets when I should have taken strong action.  I've jumped into the fray when I should have stayed out.  It takes experience and instinct to know what works."

Johnson's right--only through making mistakes and then adapting and refining can we, as leaders, become even better at this discipline.

I had the good fortune to speak about leadership this week at two different local universities.  Each class was filled with eager students anxious to learn more in their own quest for knowledge on this elusive topic.  All asked engaging and interesting questions.  Here is what I had to tell them.

1.  Hire good people and get out of the way.  There's a reason this tenet is number one--it's the most important.  Without good people, the best leader will still fail.  What do I look for in hiring the best people?  I want someone who is intelligent yet also has the street smarts to get things done.  Good judgment is critical as is an ability to anticipate--to be proactive.  Energy and passion are prerequisites for the successful team member.  And, balance in one's life is important for success.  Hiring good people means hiring those who are good team members and are also people you want to work with--but, not just like you.  As Larry Bossidy, CEO of Honeywell, said, "At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategies.

2.  Always be accessible.  The day your team quits coming to you is the day you've lost them.  Manage by walking around.  And, of supreme important, a leader must listen...I mean, really listen.  Only then can a leader teach.

3.  Avoid being a "pleaser."  We all know "the pleaser"--the person who will tell you what they know you want to hear.  Pleasers do not make strong leaders.  A leader will, inevitably, make a decision which will make someone angry.  Trying to get everyone to like you, as a leader, will result in mediocrity.  A good leader is willing to make the tough decisions, have the candid conversations, and be responsible to the welfare of the group/organization.

4.  Be comfortable with who you are.  Self-awareness, in a leader, is critical to success.  Know your strengths and your weaknesses; use tools like a Hogan Assessment or a 360 evaluation to assist you in finding your blind spots.  Don't change who you are--hone your skills, as a leader, to bring out your personal best.

5.  "It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."  This personal favorite of John Wooden's quotes is exactly what it says--great things happen when no one team member is caught up in getting the credit.  And, as a leader, living by the meaning of this quote means that your team will trust you, knowing that you are not about grabbing credit for the team's successes.

6.  It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.  I'm not suggesting that you do something wrong or against company policy.  The point here is that, as a leader, I want errors of commission versus errors of omission.  Move, do, act!

7.  Accountability--set clear expectations.  A leader must set clear expectations or else ambiguity will negatively affect a team's output.  My expectations?  Meet, and hopefully exceed, the agreed-upon objectives; meet your deadlines; and be on time.  (It's more important to meet a deadline with something 80% complete than to achieve 100% completion but deliver after an agreed-upon deadline.)

8.  Know the customer--and ensure that they are always the focus.  It's imperative that customer insight guides you, and your team's, focus.  Remember--the customer isn't always right...but they'd better be happy.

9.  The situation dictates which approach is best.  If Google has over 501 million entries on "leadership" and Amazon features 90,000 plus products on the topic, then that means there are plenty of suggested formulas for success out there.  Cherry-picking from those suggested formulas is fine--just make sure that you are not following a formulaic approach.  The situation will dictate which leadership approach you should employ.

10.  Have fun.  A team which isn't having fun in the workplace is a team which won't win.  Make sure your team laughs each day.  Push for their, and your, work-life balance.  And, let your team see your human side as a leader.

There--my ten key tenets of successful leadership...for me.  Remember, leadership is an individual journey and, along the way, you will undoubtedly build your own list of what's important.  My advice is to be a constant student of leadership, determining your own leadership philosophy and style, and then adapting...leading...adapting some more...and leading.

Good luck on your journey!

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