Pick up The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, etc., and you will see that virtually everybody is an expert on leadership. In fact, alleged experts are coming out of the woodwork: writing books, making speeches, charging people money for imparted, often reheated, wisdom.
In this post, I will simplify the topic and, in doing so, provide all you need to know from the outside about how to lead. Yet, the heart of leadership, the principles that really matter come from the inside. Leadership style is different for every person, even though many of the principles are the same. To be authentic, to be truly authentic it must come from the fabric of your being. It must be DNA-driven. If not, your constituency will smell the book learning or the mimicking. The odor will be as unpleasant as the results will be disappointing. The truth is, leadership is not formulaic. There is a lot about leadership that cannot be taught. Just as being aggressive can’t be taught. Or being tough can’t be taught. Or having common sense can’t be taught. However, successful characteristics can be learned from experience if they are lived, shaped and internalized.
Therefore, I am attempting to share what I believe to be the important, foundational building blocks of leadership. They have mostly worked for me over the years; maybe they will work for you as well. Yet, as previously expressed, they have to be adapted to who you are, how you present yourself, and, importantly, the values with which you lead your life. This is not a Cliff Notes-version of leadership. What I offer are gender-neutral principles from someone who does not read books on leadership. And it is presented in conversational language without buzzwords and without the explanatory, tired case histories we are all so familiar with.
So, here goes:
1. Every leader has one thing in common the need for followers. These followers cannot be effectively mandated; their trust must be earned over time based on actions, not words.
2. Leadership has an implicit greater good promise with every action. Successful leaders cannot be seen as selfish or greedy although, regrettably, often they are both.
3. Leadership is charged with having a vision that is clear and simple projected over an extended time horizon. For this vision to be maximized its author must be accessible and seen as a real, character-driven person.
4. Leaders are optimistic. There can be no such thing as having a bad day when you are the leader.
5. Leadership has the responsibility to align actions with words. Promises must be kept. Dreams can be expressed as hopes, but reality must be the basis for moving forward. Fluffy language frequently gets leaders in trouble because it lacks rigor and aligns only with the vapor in someone’s mind. Leaders use a language that everyone understands.
6. In high-performance organizations, leadership is everyone’s job. It’s all hands on deck. Yes, there is a hierarchy, but everybody needs to decide how best to act and how to contribute within his or her own abilities and levels. When this happens, the organization will prosper. There are no exceptions.
7. Effective leaders must be honest in everything they do. Making occasional mistakes is tolerable as long as he or she accepts responsibility. Being dishonest, including omissions, is never okay. The cost of being dishonest to the leader is profound and often irreparable. It leads to people following you because they HAVE to, not because they WANT to, a huge difference in emotional capital.
8. The leaders I most admire are humble, truly humble, not rehearsed humble. They pass bouquets and they rejoice in the success of others. They don’t want the spotlight in good times, but they step up and assume the spotlight in bad times.
9. Effective leaders are courageous. They have a relentless sense of what needs to be done and will not give ground to anything in their way. Their resolve needs to be unquestioned in order for employees to feel safe.
10. Although these days pop culture is led by celebrity, great companies are usually not. Sure, there are exceptions, but behind every celebrity CEO you will find a humble, steady, make-things-happen-the-right-way leader.
11. Leadership is the privilege of a lifetime. It has to be approached that way every minute of every day. With leadership comes the responsibility of employees, their families lives and clients well-being. That is real and pretty damn serious stuff. It is an honor that has to be embraced today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Well, you get the idea.
That’s what I believe. It is a result of experience and common sense. And those two sources are usually reliable.