“Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
Part One: Leadership Traits
There is no such thing as passive leadership. Leaders lead! It really is that simple. Instead of shying away from a challenge, leaders embrace it. When others are hesitant to take action, leaders step up and seize the initiative. Instead of folding under pressure, leaders thrive under the spotlight and find the harder parts of their job the most rewarding.
The best leaders understand their role is to be in service to something greater than themselves. They leave behind a legacy of smart decision-making, ethical behavior, solid judgment, uncompromising integrity, and consistently strong results.
After years of working with a large number of leaders from multiple disciplines and fields, I’ve come to the following conclusions about top performers:
- They set very high standards for themselves and abhor mediocrity.
- They are committed to their own professional development and learning.
- They always do what they say they will do.
- They are rarely, if ever, unprepared for important meetings.
- They never ask others to do something they wouldn’t do themselves.
- They deplore distractions and are able to prioritize and focus on what’s most important.
- They take calculated, well-thought-out risks.
- They don’t always have all the right answers, but they are committed to asking the right questions.
- They take real pride in how they treat their customers and employees.
- They have never been, nor will ever be, clock watchers.
- They take failure personally and almost never repeat mistakes.
- They show up every day and give their best effort even (especially) when this is hard.
“There are no perfect leaders, organizations, marriages, or friendships. They are all a work in progress. No one lives a perfectly charmed life devoid of difficulty. The question is and always will be “What are you going to do about it?”
I have always believed that life rewards those who are prepared when an opportunity presents itself. To do this, you need to honestly know what a great opportunity would mean for you and why. You need to have an underlying sense of your personal values and priorities. You need to be actively searching for success and happiness and be on the lookout for positive signs. You need to know what you would be willing to give up or sacrifice to make something work.
You have to be willing to fail in order to succeed. There is no disgrace in losing if you truly give it your best and learn something useful in the process… Almost every successful entrepreneur I know had a major failure at some point and ended up coming back stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
When you lead people, it is important to be true to who you are as a person. Employees will quickly notice it if you try to be something you are not. When you are true to yourself, you are more likely to be effective in whatever you do. Leadership is not about technique; it is about authenticity…
Knowledge without action is just the passage of time. Life rewards those who continually strive to learn and get better at what they do.
Challenging the status quo is a good thing. Doing it in a productive and positive fashion is critically important to its chances of success. Building a better tomorrow and brighter future is what leadership is all about. Helping people rise above their petty differences and perceived obstacles to see this vision is the true test of any leader.
When you hire the right people, put them in the right roles with the right direction using the right tools, and following the right processes, good things inevitably happen.
Life will have moments of pure joy and exultation, but it will also challenge you with despair and hardship. All we can do is be our best regardless of what happens, and let the chips fall where they may.
No one person is ever always right or always wrong. Some people may have a better track record than others, but the moment they start believing in their own infallibility and consider themselves beyond reproach, they become vulnerable to the vagaries and nuances of life…
Making the right decision isn’t always easy. Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle. Everyone is a critic. Also, remember that you are one of the few willing to step to the front and risk criticism in the first place.
The best leaders not only appreciate disagreement; they foster it. They push their employees to find the better answer. The only way to do this is to allow individuals to challenge conventional thinking and sharpen each other’s thought processes through rigorous discussion and debate.
The ability to disagree in a respectful manner is a crucial life skill that ultimately affects your career success and capacity to build healthy relationships.
Your principles and values make up the core of who you are. It is easy to lose sight of this fact and get tempted by opportunity. There are certain things in life you can’t take back or make amends for once they have happened. Regardless of the size of the company or the scale of the role, every leader gets to make choices on daily basis that reflect their values and impact the lives of others…
Leaders are defined by what they choose to say “no” to, much more than what they say “yes” to. If you get caught up in the “ends justifying the means” trap, it will eventually come back to haunt you, and there will be a reckoning for your past behavior.
No leader is ever successful alone. At some point, other people have to decide to buy in to your agenda and align their own interests accordingly. They have to believe that they will be better off for having followed you.
Self-satisfaction comes from a sense of doing something that is worthwhile, difficult, and significant.
Leaders aren’t supposed to know everything, but they are supposed to be highly inquisitive and always in search of a better way of doing things. A good executive is always asking questions…
Leadership is a skill, and it must be learned and honed accordingly. You cannot just fall back on your instincts, good looks, or charm. Yesterday’s knowledge often won’t solve tomorrow’s problems. You don’t need to be an expert in all areas, but you must have a decent level of competency in those that are most important…
The only way to be great at something is if you truly care about the outcome. The only way to truly care about the outcome is to make sure you are focused on something that genuinely connects with who you are as person and what you value as a human being. To lead others there, you need a compelling reason for why you are doing what you are doing.
Part Two: Leadership Skills
I am a strong believer that a leader’s role, especially in fast-growing or relatively large organizations, is to think. In addition, to think effectively, you need to be well-read. You need to have broad understanding of many things, including behavioral psychology and general business management issues. It is also important to be well informed of the market realities including local, regional, national, and international trends that affect your business…
Whenever there is a lack of clarity, people, just like children, will push the boundaries to see if they are real or not.
High-performing leaders know the value of their role and guard their time zealously. As a result, they are rarely in a crisis mode because they are consistently doing what they should be doing to grow a successful organization. Their positive business results ultimately compound over time and further separate them from their competition.
The most successful people I know do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. They are also good at being present in the moment and fully engaged in whatever they are doing. They avoid distractions and abhor excuses. High performance is not optional but, instead, a way of life….
A leader’s job is to simplify, not complicate, things. He/She needs to rally others around a common purpose with a clear definition of success and what it takes to get there.
Most of us in leadership positions need to say “no” more often than we currently do. Instead of always taking on more, we need to learn to let go and take on less. I have seen many talented individuals buckle under the weight of their own self-imposed pressures.
In my experience, truly successful people focus more on what they are actually doing instead of being caught up talking about it. They understand that talk is cheap.
Leadership requires too much energy, and business too much risk, not to be worth the effort. If you are regularly unhappy with your work or consistently feel like you are underperforming, then find something else to do. We all have the potential to be great at something. Life is too short for you to feel like you are not tapping into your true talents or consistently performing at a level that is beneath your best. Remember to be the best you that you can be and then enjoy it.
The leadership journey requires you to cogitate constantly on the role you and others should be playing. As you achieve some level of success, your business may challenge your capabilities to lead it. This is okay as long as you do something positive about it. You will need to challenge your own preconceptions about what’s possible and why. Chances are you will outgrow some of your people, which is often sad but should be expected. You will be forced to push yourself to your own limits and find out where you need help….
When confronting difficult situations in your business, start by looking inside yourself before passing the blame to others. If you are willing to take full responsibility for what’s taking place in the environment that you have created, then you have a fighting chance of making constructive changes. The bottom line is that organizational culture is a direct reflection of the characteristics and behaviors of the leader. Dysfunctional work environments are the product of dysfunctional leadership performance. Cultural change requires leadership behavioral change. You can complain all you want, but the truth is that it all starts and ends with you.
Ideologues have always concerned me because they believe too much in what they say, rarely listen to other perspectives, and demonize or denigrate their opposition. They spend most of their time proselytizing or defending what they think rather than challenging and growing their understanding of what they believe they already know.
I often tell my clients that when you think you have it all figured out, it is time for you to sell your business or let someone else take over. Leadership is about asking the right questions and searching for the right answers, not simply applying what you think you already know. Avoid becoming expert on what others should be doing and focus more on growing your own leadership skills. We are all a work in progress. There is no leadership philosophy or set of techniques that is applicable in all situations…. Pedestals are for flowers and artwork, not people.
I have learned to listen skeptically when I hear someone say, “It’s no big deal,” “We’ll be okay,” or “Failure isn’t an option.” Just as a body has vital signs that you check to get a baseline on someone’s health, a business has key performance indicators that signal when things are okay and when something is wrong:
- If the numbers don’t add up, you are in trouble.
- Your pricing and business model must reflect market realities.
- You can only operate so long with negative cash flow.
- Continued growth and investment without any real profit just digs a deeper hole.
- You can’t continue to spend more than you earn.
- At a certain point, some debt loads become unbearable.
- Margin compression trends rarely reverse themselves.
- Employee morale doesn’t improve on its own and usually gets worse if unaddressed.
- Customer satisfaction metrics are leading indicators of your future sales results.
Nothing is more distasteful to employees than a boss who has no control over his or her own emotions. People look to their leader to lead with confidence and resoluteness, not to suffer the “slings and arrows” of their emotional ups and downs.
Leaders need to appreciate that they always have an audience. Employees are watching your every move and behavior. They are regularly making judgments about your capacity to lead. You are either cultivating a solid fan base or building a roster of critics. Once people have made up their mind about your character, it is hard to get them to change their minds even when you are right.
So much energy is wasted on people who simply won’t own up to their faults or misdeeds. The collateral damage can last for years and leave lasting scars. It would be much easier if they would just come clean sooner rather than later. Human beings have an amazing capacity to forgive and help those who own up to their misdeeds. Making mistakes means you are human. We all stumble, fall, and learn from it…
Success in business doesn’t have to be hard to maintain as long as you stay focused, committed, and disciplined about what it takes to keep you there…until you have served every possible customer who could benefit from your products or services, or every employee has reached their full potential, then you still have work to do. Once you take your eye off the ball and get distracted by other things, like pleasure pursuits and non-core business activities, you run the risk of eroding the foundation of your success model. Many a leader has suffered the consequences of losing interest in what made them thrive in the first place.
Professional and personal reinvention is a good thing. You never want to get stale or bored with your role. There are many opportunities to grow and develop within the context of what you are already doing. You don’t have to look far to find something important that requires your attention.
The leaders I most admire can either flex up or flex down their energy level as needed. They are good at reading situations and assessing what’s required of them and others. It is hard to rattle them. They are good at discerning the difference between what’s urgent and what’s not. They have a passion for what they do. They work hard. But also have balance in their lives. They tend to manage their time and activities very effectively. They realize there is more to life than work; however, when at work, they take immense pride in what they are doing…
Leaders have far too many tools to distract them these days. It’s easy to default to hyperactivity mode where action and movement trumps everything else. For example, it is impossible to properly listen to someone or fully understand a situation if you are constantly checking in and out of the conversation or thinking about what else you could or should be doing. It worries me that as business and life get increasingly complex, our leaders are losing their capacity to focus and think.
Anyone can manipulate words and stretch the facts to suit their short-term objective. However, it is difficult to fake behavior for long-term; eventually, your words (and actions) will catch up with you… Despite what George Burns says, you can’t fake sincerity. People see through it.