Management is not leadership. Leadership is the capacity a person has to influence behaviour of others toward a goal and to do things they would not otherwise have the skills or motivation to achieve. Being in a position of power and influence does not automatically make you a leader.
As the global business environment has become more unpredictable and complex, leadership matters more today than ever before. More than contextual factors such as economic conditions, industry factors, and a firm’s overall health, leadership factors now have a much more predictive impact on company performance. The quality of those in management positions accounted for at least 70% of employee engagement while exceptional leaders can contribute about 48% higher profit than average managers. Therefore, one of the most important decisions a company can make is who to appoint to positions of authority.
Becoming this agent for change requires unconventional behaviour. It requires mastery of one’s self, the uncertainty of their environment and the complexity of relationships with other people. While there is a belief some are born to lead, the fact is that the skills and beliefs required to lead others can be practiced and perfected by anyone with the sincere desire to do so. To know if you are a leader or whether you have the qualities to become one, managers need to honestly answer the following questions about themselves.
Are you future-focused? What aspects of your environment do you tend to focus on? Do you constantly keep your eyes on the horizon and insatiably crave new knowledge? Are you concerned more with what’s next than maintaining the status quo? The heart and mind of a leader is not focused on solving today’s problems with today’s resources, but understanding tomorrow’s problems, opportunities and making the changes needed to capitalize on it.
Great leaders must have a forward thinking mindset. Because of rapid technological change, globalisation and deregulation, marginal improvements on current processes can no longer sustain competitiveness. Instead of tinkering with existing processes, leaders are those who can completely reimagine today’s business models. Leaders innovate while managers administer, and most corporations across the globe are overmanaged and underled.
Do you fear change? Often, the higher that managers are promoted, the greater they seek safety and fear losing personal control. Leaders, however, fear something even greater – the loss that comes from doing nothing as the world inevitably changes around them. Great leaders do not fear driving change before circumstances force their hand. From time to time, a business must seek to become what makes them obsolete, because it will surely eliminate competitors that aren’t prepared for it.
People resist change for a number of reasons. We are creatures of habit, so when routines become automatic, change can be very uncomfortable – especially when the need for change has not yet become obvious. When the need for change does become obvious, however, leaders who continue to play it safe risk losing the respect, trust and loyalty of others in the organization.
Do you view risk as opportunity? Risk must be a leader’s best friend. There is great risk in making important decisions without all available facts. Making wrong decisions means bearing much of the blame. However, it is because of their strength in the face of the unknown and in the face of resistance that we admire successful leaders so much. Leaders are opportunists and optimists – they see the opportunity in every difficulty while a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity.
While there is a strong link between successful entrepreneurs and optimism, it is important to also remember that blind optimism can have consequences as well. Optimism that is not tempered by realism can cause people to overestimate their abilities and underestimate their challenges.
Leaders do not fear failure because they understand the road to success is paved with setbacks and they have the ability to learn from past experience. This is known as learning agility. All business leaders must be able to handle failure, recover by actively seeking feedback, then seek new challenges where they can apply their experience and not repeat past mistakes.
Do you have clarity of purpose? Whatever your reason, conviction and an unwavering personal identity will keep you going and despite inevitable resistance. Great leaders have strong self-awareness and are passionate visionaries. This not only increases their odds of success through perseverance, but also draws others toward their compelling vision. While it’s possible to build a brand in the short-term without such passion, it’s almost impossible to sustain it in the long run. Do you understand what is important to you? Do you have faith in your purpose?
Clarity of purpose is a necessity for great communication. Leaders must be able to consistently articulate their values for the organization. When leaders are unclear about their goals, they look unprepared, confused and disorganized. Inconsistency in communication will dilute important messages. This is why strong leaders often emerge from crisis. In these situations, people need a clear sense of direction and will rally behind those with a story and strategic vision for the company. Consistency is even more important for flat organisations as the more decentralized work becomes, the more everyone needs to remain focused on the same key issues.
Purpose should not only be clear, but inspirational. From a branding perspective, companies should always promote a goal that is higher than succeeding in the competitive landscape around them. Such passion can lead to infectious enthusiasm among employees and, ideally, improve the experience for customers as well. True belief in these ideals means that leaders will walk-the-walk, not just talk-the-talk. People quickly abandon a leader who does not embody the principles they are trying to impart on others, just as consumers abandon a brand that does not live up to its promise.
There is a difference between clarity of purpose and clarity of strategy. Because the world can change quickly, operational strategies must remain fluid. Like a compass that can always be trusted to point north, this sense of direction will always ensure the company remains consistent with its overall direction, no matter how much strategic change is needed. When business models are as frequently disrupted as they are today, it is more important for C-suite executives to remain singularly focused on their principles than on the actual plans themselves. Employees will be accepting of tactics that change as long as they are consistent the same vision, but if the vision keeps changing, employees will begin to tune out.
Are you a great manager? Leaders must also have a strong foundation in management skills of planning, measurement and strategy. A leader that seems disconnected from the practical aspects of changing a complex organisation will not rally people behind them. Leaders need to possess both capabilities. Developing a vision of the distant future requires an understanding of what type of jobs are going to be needed do it and delegating responsibility to the right areas of the organisation.
To a greater extent than management, leadership requires exceptional interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. It is not enough to practice all of the beliefs and behaviours mentioned above if others do not respond to you. No matter how forward looking, self-actualised or visionary, leaders still need to master their interactions with people above and below them in the hierarchy. The true definition of leadership is whether you are followed. The following skills will dictate your success.
Are you versatile? In a world where everyone is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all leadership strategy. Great leaders must have the ability to align and coalesce diverse groups of people, personalities, ages and cultures around a common vision for things to run smoothly. To ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction, leaders must have the adaptability to treat everyone a little bit differently.
Versatility begins with empathy and understanding. Leaders must be highly sensitive to what is relevant to each individual to communicate in a way that relates to what they value. It is easy for us to project our own worldview onto other people but, to lead, we have to understand each person’s unique perspective and the experiences that have shaped their perspective. Stereotyping is always dangerous. Each person’s life experiences are fundamentally different – especially in a globalised work environment where having a multinational team is becoming the norm. Leaders need to understand people in order to match their strengths and competences to the tasks that need to be accomplished.
The best leaders manage individuals the way that they want to be managed, rather than the way they prefer to manage. Some individuals need mentoring while others dislike receiving advice altogether. While some people love taking on challenges, other simply care about paycheque. Some may feel uncomfortable with public praise, while others enjoy being singled out. In the end, it isn’t the style of leadership that counts, it is the effectiveness. Versatility allows for effectiveness. The best leadership style is not to have a style at all – but a process.
Do you empower others? Leadership from the top alone cannot succeed. While management is about control, leadership is about empowerment – the ability to motivate others to overcome obstacles on their own. Managers tell people what to do while leaders spur their initiative and creativity – often giving them more autonomy than they might deserve in order to develop their skills.
A sense of power and responsibility has dramatic effects on behaviour, making people better at focusing on information, identifying patterns, being decisive, energetic and optimistic. Empowerment gives people a sense of accomplishment, making their daily tasks intrinsically motivating. Empowerment also multiplies leadership, creating other leaders throughout the organization – the greatest achievement of all. When a manager creates a team that can operate without them, it means they can focus on adding value elsewhere. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the ultimate goal of a leader should be to make their role redundant.
Every organisation has an informal person-to-person means of circulating information known as “the grapevine”. Although many leaders are unaware of how it operates, up to 70% of all organization communication comes through the grapevine. In cases where multiple messages are disseminated – for example, one delivered via speech and another through the grapevine – studies have found that more people believe the grapevine. This indicates the importance of not only having a consistent message from the top, but having empowered advocates throughout the organisation that will continue to spread management’s message without their direction.
Are you selfless? To empower others, managers need to exercise a great deal of restraint in order to do what’s best for the group. Too many people think leadership is about control. Rather, leadership is about inspiration, guidance and support. Are you willing to let others have the spotlight and courageous enough relinquish the control you have on them?
Leaders have to resist taking over. Rather than instinctively answering difficult questions themselves, leaders guide their people through the process required to solve them. If telling someone a solution is worth one point, getting them to find the solution themselves is worth 10 points. A leader’s job isn’t to be the smartest person in the room, but to fill the room with smart, creative, capable people, give them the right tools, develop their skills and get out of their way.
When we think of great leaders, it is often the charismatic ones that come to mind. But boisterous personalities tend to have as many detractors as they do advocates. Research has shown that more employees view such managers as an obstacle to their effectiveness than as an enabler of it. When employees start to feel like they succeed despite, not because of their leaders, they will eventually move on to greener pastures, leaving only average performers behind. And when it’s obvious their leaders focus more on getting the credit for their contribution than the group’s achievement, mistrust develops which can cause a chain reaction of self-interested behaviour in the organisation. This is opposite of an ideal team atmosphere.
In reality, the majority of successful leaders are modest and never boastful. This is not to say that vain leaders cannot be successful. But a leader often has to achieve an incredible amount of success first before any power-hungry, attention-seeking behaviour can become accepted or tolerated. For most leaders who are in the intermediate stages of their development, this type of entitlement carries great risk of losing the respect of their team and distracting others from important issues of the day. Great leaders must not focus on self-promotion but on the promotion of others and let go of pride and status.
Do you encourage contributions from others? In today’s global business environment, an organization’s ability to develop and manage diverse teams is essential for future competitiveness. When managers are afraid of losing control or looking look like they don’t have the answers, they usually fail to encourage people to discuss disruptive ideas. The ability to encourage teams to voice perspectives and dissent is the one of the most effective means of improving performance, yet less than half of leaders in successful organizations support speak-up cultures.
Not everyone has the courage to speak up and challenge the status quo, but they all have ideas of how things can be improved. Ideas can spring from unlikely places so leaders must encourage ideas. To encourage openness, leaders need to be open themselves – often taking the first step to exposing their weaknesses and personality. But this is an important step. When people are left guessing about who you are, it becomes difficult for them to fully engage with you. People want transparent, trusted leaders.
Creating an environment that allows people to express their thoughts about the organisation means leaders have to be prepared for other consequences. People who feel free to communicate are going to express fear, frustration and anger, which means leaders will need to develop skills as psychologists as well. In too many professional environments, emotions are suppressed for the sake of decorum. Organisations should want a passionate team, which can generate passionate, transformative ideas, and energise itself.
Are you liked by others? Likeability is one of the most important factors in the success of a leader. From studies of almost a quarter million subordinates, employees with warm, close relationships with their superiors produce higher customer satisfaction and engagement that ultimately result in higher profits for their organization. While it’s possible for a person to be an effective leader without being likeable, only one out of 2,000 managers who rate in the bottom quartile of likeability also rank in the top quartile of leadership effectiveness. For critics, kindness in leadership equates to weakness. However, for employees to accept feedback or feel comfortable questioning their superiors there has to be a pre-existent condition of rapport. The belief that leaders’ should avoid close relationships in order to lead traces back to the military, where officers are required to send subordinates in to harm’s way. But there is a high price to pay for creating barriers between people – this personal bond is a necessity for leadership in the 21th century.
How does a manager become likeable? Exercising all of the previously mentioned traits will get you most of the way there. We like leaders we trust and dislike those we distrust, so leaders need to display integrity, empathy, transparency and fairness. Employees also want to work at places where their role models have an entrepreneurial spirit, passion and belief behind what they are doing. We all have fond memories of coaches and mentors who have helped develop our skills and empowered us in our roles. If employees are having fun and can grow in more ways than picking up a pay check, there is a high chance a strong culture and innovative atmosphere will develop. In these conditions, businesses and people flourish.
Visibility is also important. The most likeable leaders have a down-to-earth personality and almost seem approachable around the office. This accessibility allows people to feel like they know who they are. External visibility helps as well. Media appearances build a sense of pride among employees in being linked with someone so sought after by a national or global audience. When people define their ideal workplace, this prestige is an important factor.
Even though all of the above attributes seem obvious as leadership qualities, they remain the exception rather than the rule. Research has found that companies fail to choose the right candidate for such important roles 82% of the time.
While some people are born with a few innate leadership qualities, the rest are self-taught from experience under the right set of circumstances or are the product of coaching. Therefore, understanding the essence of leadership is vital for companies to find and develop their future leaders. In every organization there is an employee with high leadership potential waiting to be discovered. It is even believed that one in ten people possess the necessary traits of a modern leader.
Do you embrace and accept change as inevitable? Are you driven to solve tomorrow’s problems and challenge the status quo? Are you steadfast in your beliefs? Can you adapt yourself to each person you interact? Do you sincerely desire the best for other people? Do you have the courage to step aside and let others lead? To inspire and empower, your influence as a leader must be built upon trust, respect, rapport, energy, a compelling vision and the desire to fulfil the basic human needs of others – not yourself.
This article is part of the Leadership Series. Read the other related articles: