Some thoughts on leadership

By | June 11, 2014

leadership2 I recently delivered a briefing to 40 senior managers of a mid cap technology company from across Europe. It was a small part of a week-long training course that they were undertaking on many aspects of leadership and strategy. I was there primarily to talk about how marketing (my function) is supports corporate strategies, but towards the end of the Q&A session I was asked about my approach to leadership in general.  We had run out of time for an expansive answer, so I thought I’d put some of them down here, point the attendees to this post and solicit any additional input from my readers.

I would not begin to suggest that I have a unique insight into leadership or have developed any remarkable theories on it. There are plenty of gurus out there who have strong opinions and practical experience, about what is after all, a fundamental behavior exhibited every minute of the day. If you want to understand the theory of leadership then there are hundreds of academic books on the subject that deeply analyze the attributes of what makes a leader.

That said, I have been leading teams professionally for the last twenty years or more and prior to that managed teams for several years.So I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

‘If you want to know whether you are a leader, just look over your shoulder and if there’s no-one there, then you’re not’ 

I don’t know who first said that, but it is a clever line. Metaphorically speaking it is true but for most leaders they have a leadership role conferred on them by dint of their seniority in the organization or the management position they hold. There will usually be people over their shoulders, it is just a degree of how far behind!

For me, here are a few of the behaviors  that I think set a leader apart from a manager. I hope I bring these to the table every day, or at least most days! It is very definitely not an exhaustive list but the most important few in my view: –

Passion A leader must be passionate about what he or she does. They must display a desire and a willingness to put things on the line to succeed. They are not unrealistically optimistic and certainly must retain a sense of realism, but they are definitely a positive driving force.

Inspiration A leader needs to inspire his or her team to perform to the best of their abilities. A leader must imbue the sense of excitement that the future holds for the individuals and the company. Inspirational leaders find their people doing extraordinary things and going well above what anyone could reasonably expect. They enjoy lots of discretionary effort from their people.

Bias for Action Most people are familiar with Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War treatises on strategy and leadership. Not surprisingly followers expect leaders to lead and that means actually doing something. The analogies with war operations to describe leadership attributes can get a little overdone, but the bias to action within that context is obvious, and it does translate to the business world. A leader must walk the talk.

Communication maven A leader must be a very solid communicator, both internally and externally. As trust is a key construct between the successful leader and the successfully led, the concept of transparency is usually a prescript. Over-communication is usually way better than the alternative, and the worst thing a leader can do is ‘go dark’.

Barrier Remover A strong leader will have built a strong bench – a team he or she can trust to deliver. That in itself is a key skill. What then becomes crucial is that the leader removes barriers which may inhibit the team from reaching its goals and objectives, where ever possible. These are often multi-hued and therefore a successful leader will have an armoury of skills such as diplomacy, guile, negotiation abilities and many other besides.

Total clarity on roles and responsibilities Your people, rather than shying from accountability are actually looking to understand what is expected of them and how they can deliver against those expectations. The clearer the goals and objectives, the more accountability your staff feel and the more they are invested. In fact it is almost counter intuitive, the more accountability your staff have, the more committed and loyal they will be. It always reminds me of the Full English Breakfast – are you involved like the chicken, or are you committed like the pig?

As I said, the number of leadership books is legion and so are the perspectives on leadership they offer. The few behaviors I have highlighted above are a slice only. However they are the top behaviors from my experience and ones that I particularly try to focus on.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on leadership

  1. Anna S

    One of the areas I have personally struggled with in the past is balancing most of what you mention + recognizing the bigger picture of all main departments I need to serve, so that then we (my team) can take initiative to help reach goals and solve problems. In a big company, I find that difficult for new managers who might not have links to most departments. So I tend to point them to listen to major company announcements, analyst day briefings, sit at Briefing Centers, etc. (love the bench strength, it does take a village!)

  2. Jennie

    The concepts David lists resonate with me. The one I find most important is around empowerment and accountability, which is perhaps the last concept of roles and responsibilities restated a bit. The second most important to me is communications. Years ago, I heard General Colin Powell present a primer on leadership. I’ve been trying to follow many of his precepts ever since. To quote the General on empowerment, “”The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.” To quote him on communications: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”

  3. indonesia

    I agree with communication maven. To click down further, I would say that you need to solidly know your audience so you can communicate in a way that is most effective.


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