Leadership is mercurial stuff – it’s very hard to put your finger on. Most of us think we know what good leadership looks like but the reality is that we struggle to appropriate it for ourselves. That’s because knowing the principles of leadership is very different from being the person needed to change our world. The human condition is a complex thing but here’s what we know for sure about great leaders – success is an inside job. To lead we must do so from the inside-out. Forget personas, we must be the real deal.
Poor leadership abounds and worse still, toxic leadership is often veiled in a cloak of transient success, sporting metaphors and bravado. Performance cultures where politics fester in every corner are common-place. Corporate bullies and psychopaths are all too common. Flame-thrower style management for short-term financial KPI achievement all to the detriment of sustained success. ‘Shareholder value’ touted as a euphemism for executive stock plan optimization. Lord Of The Flies meets Wall Street… it’s no way to live.
Real leadership, on the other hand, is precious because it’s rare. There are many in leadership positions but only a few are great. Most live lives of discomfort when it comes to leading, wondering when the day will come that they will be found-out. I have a confession to make; I’m one of them. I’ve been leading teams and companies for decades and I’m not a natural leader; it’s been hard yards, working on myself – building from the inside-out. What is leadership and how do we become one worth following?
Here is a great truth – leadership is an inside job. But within all of us is a labyrinth of complexity and we are the way we are for reasons we never fully understand. The first step on the road to success is to heed the advice of an ancient Greek aphorism: ‘Know thyself’. Here are my thoughts on the factors that contribute to the complexity of leadership and success.
First of all, we inherit our intelligence, personality and family of origin. None of us were able to choose our parents or genes – these are the cards we are dealt. But intelligence and personality can be enhanced and altered if we choose to do so. Any weaknesses in all three of these foundational elements must be managed as we strive to be the best possible person we are capable of becoming.
Upon the foundation of genetic IQ and personality our attitudes, beliefs and values build us into who we are. By the age of seven, our personality and values are largely formed and these are influenced heavily by our upbringing and environment (family and society). The Catholic Order of Jesuits is attributed with the saying: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". There is much truth in this assertion but we are not robots, nor mere animals. We are uniquely endowed with the ability to laugh and cry, to dream and create, to choose appalling evil or breathtaking beauty, to plumb the depths of hell or reach for the stars. The hope for us all is that we can break the shackles of our past and redefine our futures.
Attitudes, beliefs and values can therefore be rejected, adjusted or chosen. It is natural to question and challenge all three, especially as we grow through adolescence. My father was a committed atheist and I had no religious brainwashing as child at all; yet I chose faith as a teenager and I remain a believer today. Others are raised in loving religious homes and reject the values inculcated during their upbringing. Free will and free-thinking are what make us truly human.
But all of this is below the surface – not visible to an observer. For most, it is the unseen baggage being carried while running the race of life. We are rarely held back by external factors, it is instead our inability to let go of limiting beliefs and behaviors that stymies us. Consider the illustration below as we now discuss the factors above the line.
Here is the reality and the problem that most of us face in life. We can only have the outcomes, results and wealth we desire if we consistently and masterfully execute the right inputs, actions and behaviors. To have we must first do; but to do effectively we must be the person worthy of the success we seek. All of the factors ‘below the line’ in the illustration either enable or sabotage our efforts.
The biggest mistake people make is seeking to manage by results rather than inputs. Jason Jordan taught me that you cannot manage revenue and he instead illuminates the path of focusing on activities that achieve objectives, that in turn create results. The only thing we truly have control of is our behaviour and actions to execute the inputs that create success. We cannot manage outcomes, results and prosperity or wealth; we can only have them as goals. We should relentlessly focus on what we do and being the person capable of executing masterfully.
It’s not enough to project a persona, we need to actually be the authentic person worth following. Anthony Howard is a business mentor and he taught me that there is no such thing as authentic leaders, just authentic people in leadership roles. He coined the term ‘human-centered leadership’ and he is worth following. The very best motivation for leadership comes from changing the lives of people by believing in them. Service of a noble cause for the benefit of people (customers and staff) is what drives the very best leaders.
So as you consider what really drives you and what baggage you need to let go of to be truly successful, here is my list of ten elements for success.
- IQ and EQ. Intelligence and self-awareness are both essential. One without the other is not enough. Read and be committed to life-long learning. Become an expert. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
- Mission and purpose. In professional selling I teach people to lead with 'why?'… it is equally important for leadership. Your why, and the why of your organization must be meaningful. Money, trinkets, and status are not enough.
- Passion and belief. Our why is what needs to drive us but we also need to be true believers in our cause and those with whom we work. The power of believing in another person is never to be under-estimated.
- Values and culture. The culture of an organization is the behaviour of the leaders, plain and simple. Are you values worth following and to they drive the right behavior? Culture is the signature of the leader.
- People and relationships. Nothing great can be achieved without the support of a team. Relationships with the right people are everything in any endeavor – people of integrity and genuine power.
- Numbers and discipline. Never neglect profit or cash-flow. Holding people to account is essential for any leader, yet proactively manage the right numbers – the KPIs which create ultimate results.
- Results and managing risk. This is language of leadership – delivering outcomes and navigating the challenges. Stay focused on the prize and be positively paranoid about what could blind-side you.
- Activity and attitude. Work-ethic is essential for success. Work hard and smart but realize that attitude is the biggest differentiator.
- Gravitas and humility. This may seem paradoxical but the combination is compelling. Powerful people listen much and talk little.
- Legacy and philanthropy. We all want to make a lasting difference and the very best leaders care about doing something worthwhile and improving the lives of others, especially those denied the opportunities afforded to the privileged.
Do the difficult work on the inside in addressing all of these issues. Read, dream, and challenge your own assumptions about yourself. None of us lives long enough to learn all the necessary lessons from our own mistakes. It is therefore important to learn from others. Jim Collins’ book, Good To Great, remains a seminal work. There are many others and we must carefully choose who we follow. Who are they in your life? Here is another related article I wrote concerning what I've learned about personal leadership.
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