Some Thoughts on Leadership

(Note: This is an excerpt from a much longer article called "Awareness to Action Leadership," which can be found here.)

Working with leaders, you can’t help but think a lot about leadership. Over the years I’ve developed a lot of opinions on the topic, and perhaps gained a few insights. In this post, I’d like to introduce the approach to leadership that I take with my clients, something I call “Awareness to Action Leadership.”
It’s important to define terms, so let me define what I mean by leadership. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders and people writing about leaders, but this one works for me: successful leadership is the act of influencing others to effectively achieve a desired result consistently and over time. There are a couple of assumptions implicit in this definition, namely that leadership involves the engagement of others, that good leadership improves circumstances, and that in order to get results over time one must lead in a way that makes others want to follow. Thus, treating people well is inherently more effective than treating them poorly.

I’d like to start with some opinions I’ve formed:

There is no secret formula.
Leadership is very context specific; what works in one situation for one person may not work in another situation, or even for a different person in the same situation. Effective leadership requires adaptability to the variables of individuals, contexts, and goals. Circumstances may require a leader to call upon any of a very long list of skills, competencies, attitudes, or behaviors. The challenge is that we can never know in advance what those variables may be at any given time. Thus, a leader must be a student of leadership, continually improving his or her abilities, and constantly monitoring the environment for cues as to what abilities need to be developed. As Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Nowhere is this more true than in leadership.

Because there is no secret formula, we should always beware those who promise a secret formula. If a consultant tells you that his or her list is complete or “necessary and sufficient,” walk slowly to the door.

Leaders are “born” and “made.”

Not born, perhaps, but there does seem to be some innate set of intangible qualities that many leaders have that non-leaders don’t. I don’t know whether they are born with these qualities or whether they are the result of early experience, but they tend to be in place by the time the leader gets to adulthood.
That said, almost anyone--given the requisite intelligence, drive, and fundamental task competence related to their job—can improve their leadership ability. Not everyone is a born leader, but everyone can become a better leader.

Good leaders have an almost-compulsive need to lead.
For whatever reason, the best leaders seem to unable to not lead. Some do it out of a desire to achieve their private goals, some do it for the rewards of the position, but the best can’t explain why they want to lead; they just have some inner drive pushing them toward the front. They often report a desire to see results or shape their environment, and they often feel that they must do it because no one else is capable or willing. Others sense this drive in them and unconsciously follow. Whatever the (often post-hoc) rationale, the need to lead seems to come from an irresistible urge deep in the psyche.

Good leaders work harder than most people.
Delegation, working at the right level, and some degree of work/life balance are important leadership qualities. However, the best leaders have a love for the job of leading and put countless hours into doing it well. They think about work all the time; they are constant learners, always seeking to improve; they are willing to get on a plane and fly across the world, to start the day early, and to end it late. Good leaders might fail because they are outsmarted or because they didn’t have the right skills or the right team or the right product they needed for the circumstances, but they will never fail because they didn’t work hard enough.

Leaders are (and should be) judged on the results.
There seem to be two broad camps when it comes to leadership theory; one I think of as the hard-line camp and the other I think of as the soft-line camp. The latter is focused on what are traditionally called “soft-skills,” interpersonal skills, empowerment, team work, etc. The hard-line camp, more dominant among senior business leaders, focuses on getting bottom-line results. Soft skills matter, but primarily because they are usually needed to get results over the long term (and secondarily because being nice to people is simply good form). A leader can browbeat people into getting results for a while, but eventually people (the good ones, at least) leave or fail to perform at a high level. Sustainable leadership uplifts and motivates people in positive ways. But it is a mistake to neglect the cold, hard facts of life as a leader: if you do not get results you have failed and you will not be the leader for very long. A good leader is able to keep results at the forefront of everyone’s concerns and perform some of the unpleasant deeds (such as reducing costs and inefficiencies, firing underperformers, delivering unpleasant feedback, engaging in conflict, etc.) necessary to get the results.