We hear and read a lot about the importance of leadership skills in the corporate world. Almost every other business publication has a section on leadership, accompanied by research showing the fruits good leadership yield.
The 34th U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower, eloquently defined leadership as “the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it”. If I may be so bold as to add “because he/she wants to do it” in the second part of his definition, especially with recent rise of women in leadership positions.
But what does leadership mean in actionable terms, and more importantly, how do we recognize a good leader?
Let me begin by clearly stating not everyone in the organization can be assigned a leadership position, this is not what this blog alludes to, but everyone can adopt leadership behavior in their personal conduct regardless of job title and/or grade. People often get this confused, some might think since they do not hold “the title” they cannot be expected to demonstrate leadership behavior. That is a big misconception and a missed opportunity for personal development.
It is important to make a distinction between a leadership position and leadership behavior before we dive into what leadership is and what skills fit the description. It would help if we look at leadership as a daily practice rather than a job title. Leadership is not associated with a role, a business function or an industry.
To understand leadership skills better, I like to put them in three categories: People Leadership, Business Leadership and Strategic Leadership. These categories are not linear nor are they sequential. Let’s look at these three categories in detail.
People leadership is all about developing your emotional intelligence muscle, which is itself another whole topic. In its simplicity, a good people leader will be aware of themselves and how their actions impact those around them.
The best measure of a people leader is what people say about them and how they act around the leader. Do they feel inspired? Do they feel safe to say what’s on their mind? Do they feel appreciated? Are they coached and supported by their leader? If the answers are yes, then the chances are you have a good people leader.
To have good “people leader” mentality, you would have to think of your employees as your internal customers, you have to sell your product/service to them first before they go out and sell it to your external customers. And in order to sell to your employees, you have to earn their trust and respect.
Business leadership is outward focused toward your customers and stakeholders. Do you know who they are? Do you understand their needs? Do you understand your environment and your competitors? Can you take calculated risks? Are you conscious of the cost of doing business? Do you know how to prioritize and mobilize resources? Do you make decisions for the best interest of the business? Do you share knowledge?
These questions are a subset of many business-related questions that a good business leader would have crystal clear answers to.
Strategic leadership is building for the future by driving innovation and reducing complexity. Strategic leaders provide direction and focus, challenge the status quo, encourage strategic thinking and maintain a global business perspective. In order to do all that, a strategic leader needs to know his/her employees and understand the contextual business environment.
You cannot claim to be a “strategic leader” if you do not have a good relationship with your employees; you cannot claim to be an inspiring “business leader” if you do not fully grasp the vision and direction of the business. A holistic leader would need to demonstrate leadership skills at all three categories (people, business and strategic) and be an advocate of these skills.
Now, imagine having leadership skills replicated throughout the organization! A successful organization is one where all employees embrace and breath the same leadership air into their lungs, regardless of job titles. For this to happen, the board of directors and executives need to walk the leadership talk.
It is of no use to have one management level practicing leadership skills while others ignore them, or even worse, demonstrate dictatorship rather than leadership. Leadership is the only area where a top-down approach is necessary to replicate behavior throughout the organization.
I would like to conclude with one of my favorite quotes from James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them”. It is worth remembering in leadership, you do not attract who you want, but who you are.