I did my MBA at a good school, read the books, and have held the position. My summary – being a leader is tough. Nobody knows the future. Everyone has an opinion, some a predictive model, and many just a level of optimism that they are right. What most don’t have is the burden of consequence. That burden is for the leader to bear alone. A “leadership” team will argue that they have shared blame for an adverse outcome. What sets the leadership team apart from the leader is unexpressed doubt. Doubt over whether the team is right or wrong and the knowledge that getting it wrong will have a material effect on the lives of employees, stakeholders, and shareholders.
What makes one leader more successful than another?
To answer the question, it is necessary to explore the difference between leadership and being a leader.
In my view leadership is an abstract ideal and a leader is a specific instance, or executor of that ideal. For the purposes of this paper I will summarise leadership as the “capacity to actualise potential”; to “create momentum as measured against time”.
The ideal of leadership is further defined as a composite of four forms (ref Aristotle):
- The efficient form – the capacity to cause change to happen, as a racquet striking a ball causes the ball to fly.
- The material form – the unique nature of the person who would be a leader.
- The potential form – the ability to extract potential from themselves and their followers
- The final form – the clarity of thought on the end game
A high performing leader will exemplify these four forms. As an individual dilutes one or more of the forms, so the quality and effectiveness of that individual as a leader is diluted.
To further explain the four forms as the would manifest themselves in a leader.
- The efficient form.
A leader causes change to happen through their own actions and through the actions of others. Consider, an organisation sets a budget for growth in revenues, profit and market share. The leader must execute a range of strategies that will cause the organisation to change, to do things differently, in order to achieve the desired quantum of change (growth) in the stipulated time period.
- The material form.
To be a leader, an individual needs to have the nature of a leader. By nature, I refer to the personality of the individual. For example, it is less common for an introvert or a bully to be an effective leader. Augmenting the individual’s personality is the sum of their life experiences, training and education, and their physical stature. Consider this – to be a leader in the military, an individual needs a personality that responds well to discipline, they will have undertaken substantial training, have a deep understanding of military strategy, and they should have physique that reflects that they can readily meet the challenges of the role. The same would apply for a leader of a sports team. A difference may be in the nature of the training. The difference is a more pronounced when the leader is a teacher or a politician. For these roles the importance of the physical stature is less relevant, but the importance of having flexibility of thought is heightened. A wonderful example is Stephen Hawkins.
It is not uncommon for people to wonder why an individual was picked for a leadership role. What was it that the authorities saw in the person that made them choose him/her over everyone else? Most likely it was a combination of the individual’s material and potential forms that the authorities knew would provide the right foundation for the person to develop into a leader. I witnessed this first hand when my friend, a natural leader, was accepted into the cadetship program of a major hotel chain on his first application. His previous role was a shelf-stacker in a grocery store.
- The potential form
To be a leader requires constant growth. The leader needs to have the potential to grow as a person and as a leader. As soon as a leader believes they have all the answers, they start to diminish as a leader. Equally, the leader must inspire and enable their followers to grow and realise their own potential.
A good leader is a good follower. By allowing others to lead, allows those people to explore and expand their potential. This includes allowing them to fail and working with them to bring them back better and stronger than before.
- The final form
A leader requires clarity of thought regards the end game. This does not mean that they necessarily have all the details, but it does require a clear idea of what success looks like. If a leader does not have clarity of the end game, then they cannot easily convince people to follow them. They also need the courage to do what is necessary to achieve it. This ties back into their nature and potential.
I had the opportunity to work with a colleague who had a brilliant mind. The difficult part was that his mind came packaged in a body that was heavily tattooed and pierced. His choice of hairstyles left a lot to be desired. Taking him to clients was always a risk. In one situation we were asked not to come back, but in all others, the clients were polite enough to hide their shock and let him speak. Once he started to speak, the audience would quickly become enthralled by his mind and his tattoos and piercings would “disappear”. His ability to lead an organisation through their own complexities was a pleasure to witness. He was gifted in all four forms. He just needed people to allow him the opportunity to express it.
The measurement of a leader is the magnitude of momentum they create as measured in time. The greater the change and the shorter the time, the more relevant these four forms become with an emphasis on the efficient and final form. A CEO who is brought in to turn a failing company around, needs to quickly inspire the staff to lift, exhibit and grow their potential.
To expose these forms, a leader needs five sequential skills. To listen, think, articulate, unite, and enable. These skills are of equal importance and while there is a defined order, the process is iterative and can be restarted at any time.
Listening refers to more than the obvious. It is listening to all information streams including verbal input, written reports, articles, data sets etc. It includes all stakeholders; the leadership team, the share market, politicians, the community, the financial sector, the supply chain, family, and the leaders own inner voice. It is data gathering.
Thinking is the process of taking the inputs from listening and determining the preferred way forward. This step includes debate, reflection, challenging, and checking and confronting group think. Revisiting “listening” is common. Thinking can happen “out loud” as a point is discussed with a controlled group of stakeholders such as the leadership team. The natural outcome the thinking step is a decision. Without a decision, the final form will be poorly developed.
Articulation is the expression of the decision. This where the leader starts to move the conversation from controlled groups to uncontrolled groups. It is important for the leader to have crystallised the thinking into a succinct message that can be broadcast to various stakeholder groups at an appropriate level of confidentiality and detail. The outcome is for all stakeholders to understand what decision has been made and the reasons behind it. What is said and how it is said has a direct impact on the “unite” step which in turn has a strong correlation to the potential form. To cause people to want to grow their potential, the leader needs to articulate the final form in a way that make people want to achieve it.
Articulation includes non-verbal communication. In simple terms a leader must speak like a leader and act like a leader. Failure to act the role will completely undermine the impact of the expressed message. If the leader wishes to be successful in the “unite” step, it is mandatory that they allow their followers the opportunity to respond and show them that they have been heard.
Unite is the process of causing the stakeholder community to enlist behind the decision. By enlist, I refer to the process of causing each individual stakeholder to voluntarily choose to support the decision. This happens through effective articulation of the message and the behaviour exhibited by the leader. This step has a direct and consequential impact on culture. A group that is united behind a common objective, is formidable. The endgame is more readily achieved through unity than disunity.
Enabling, is ensuring that the team has the capabilities, capacity, and competency to execute the decision. It is a “physical” step. One where the efficient form comes into its own, but never in isolation of the other forms. In an organisation this could include ensuring there is a suitable operating model, delegations of authority, roles and responsibilities, and an appropriate technology backbone.
The phrase “cometh the hour, cometh the man” (source unknown) is highly relevant, (and unnecessarily gender biased). A leader will frequently have their time. A new business needs an entrepreneurial leader and later the same business needs a leader that brings maturity and growth. Military conflicts need battlefield leaders, but lasting peace needs political leaders. This doesn’t mean that the two leaders are better or lessor leaders than each other. It is just that their individual personification of the four forms are better suited to some situations, as dictated by the times of the day; than to others.
Finally, the theatre in which a leader acts is relevant. If the leader is at odds with their environment, then their followers will be conflicted as to the leader’s suitability for the role. Imagine a person with a bone through their nose, no front teeth and who wears no shirt. This type person would not inspire white collar workers to follow him, but if you were lost in the jungle and your choice was to follow him or a person in an expensive suit, you would readily follow the “jungle” man. When it comes to picking a leader, people will follow people who have the “nature of a leader” that is best suited to the situation. Again, this does not diminish alternate people as leaders. It is just that they are less suited to the environment they were required to lead within.
I close with the comment that all leaders have the four forms of leadership. However, the way each leader expresses leadership will be different, based on their own personal mix of the four forms.