“When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.”
– Lao Tse
Leadership is often discussed, rarely practiced. It is one of those nebulous notions that are omnipresent but yet difficult to grasp. As one of my business professors put it, “leadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”1 Leadership has been defined as a complex process by which a person influences others to accomplish a mission, task, or objective and directs the organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent.”2
To complicate the issue further, leadership is situational and therefore eludes general definition. A crisis or event may cause a person to “rise to the occasion,” such as Rudolph Guiliani immediately after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. One cannot state emphatically, “this is leadership!” without providing the context in which that leadership was demonstrated. For example, “She demonstrated leadership by inheriting a business with declining sales, –6% net profit, and weak managers and within a short time stabilized sales, improved net profitability to +5% and hired new strong managers.”
Nonetheless, there are general traits that are characteristic of good leadership. Typically one’s beliefs, ethics, knowledge, skills, values and integrity are a barometer for one’s leadership abilities. The following attributes are considered to be those frequently associated with leaders:
- Flexible – has the ability to change and not stay focused on a failing strategy
- Willing and able to show vulnerability, weaknesses and admit mistakes
- Gives credit to others, assumes blame herself
- Has a simple message and consistent vision which is constantly communicated
- Embraces change and innovation
- Models desired behavior
- Surrounds herself with people who shore up her weaknesses
- Understands the culture of her organization and knows how to motivate others and affect change. This requires an innate understanding of the human side of management – the alignment of corporate culture, values, behaviors and people – to produce the desired results.
In order to develop leadership leaders within your organization, you must cultivate the necessary basics of leadership – character, integrity, commitment and selfless service to the organization. When people decide to follow a leader, a person observes if you are trustworthy, principled and sincere. They observe what you do and who you are. People follow those who they respect and display a sense of direction and purpose. To receive respect you must have honesty and integrity. To demonstrate direction you must convey a clear vision for the organization, and consistently communicate that direction. A good leader must clarify the priorities and goals of the organization.
How can you foster these characteristics within your organization? Firstly, walk the talk. In doing so, people will not only follow you, but they will also lead others. Secondly, gain the trust and loyalty of those around you. This can be accomplished by showing some or all of the qualities listed above – flexibility, vulnerability, et. al. Finally, practice and disseminate these principles of leadership throughout the organization:
- Know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and actively seek self-improvement
- Be technically competent.
- Always take responsibility for your actions (finger-pointing and blaming others reduces your credibility).
- Make timely decisions based on sound reasoning and analysis; explain your rationale
- Understand the motivations of your people and look out for their best interests
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
- Coach your people as a team, not as individuals – foster collaboration
Developing leaders within your organization requires transparency, openness, consistency, selflessness, patience, persistence, and optimism. In our day-to-day work, we may all do well to heed the advice of Ralph Nader: “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
–Peter M. Guyer
Peter M. Guyer is the Founder and President of ATHENA MARKETING INTERNATIONAL (athenaintl.com), an international marketing, consulting and business development firm serving food and beverage manufacturers. Tel. (206) 749-9255.
1 Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. (Reading, MA: 1989), p.1.
2 Donald Clark, Big Dog’s Leadership Page, Donald Clark, 1997