Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

More On Becoming a Leader

Monday, August 30th, 2010

As a follow up to my previous post, Warren Bennis, in On Becoming a Leader, asks, “Where have all the leaders gone?” in a book published in 1989.  That’s been a common theme in our society more than in recent times.  In fact, the political vitriol of today is nothing compared to, say, Lincoln or Washington’s day.  Sometimes, we recognize leaders long after they have vanished from the scene.  Bennis chose a theme that has occurred for generations.

Bennis states that leaders share at least some of the following:

  • A guiding vision: “The leader has a clear idea of what he wants to do – professionally and personally – and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.”
  • Passion: “[T]he underlying passion for the promises of life, combined with a very particular passion for a vocation, a profession, a course of action.”
  • Integrity: Integrity, according to Bennis, consists of self-knowledge, candor and maturity, which create trust.
  • Curiosity and Daring: The leader wonders about everything, takes risks, doesn’t worry about failure, embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.

On Becoming a Leader

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Warren Bennis is considered a pioneer in the field of leadership studies.  His books Leaders:  Strategies for Taking Charge and On Becoming a Leader have been translated into more than 20 languages.

In the latter book, Bennis notes that the leaders he’s interviewed agree on two points.  First, leaders are made, not born, and they “are made more by themselves than by any external means.”  Second, no one sets out to be a leader, but merely to express himself, freely and fully.  He distinguishes the second point from being driven, as many are, and leading, which few do.

Bennis writes that just because someone has the right ingredients doesn’t mean he or she will become a leader.  Motivation, type of character and luck all play a part.  His book On Becoming a Leader is a story of process, with no beginning, middle or end.  In his interviews with individuals in business, the media and arts, and others, he finds this story has many recurring themes:  the need for both formal and informal education, the need to unlearn, the need for reflection on what is learned, the need to take risks and the need to become competent and master the task at hand.

The (Not Exact) Characteristics of a Successful Leader

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Once upon a time, a CEO I worked with critiqued the difference between our leadership styles.  He told me, “You’re like a coconut.  You’re hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.  People think you’re tough until they get to know you.  Then they realize you care about them.”

He then said something shocking.  He said, “I’m just the opposite.  Everybody likes me instantly.”  “But I’m hard on the inside,” he continued, waving his arm at a group of people working for his company.  “I could care less if any of them walked outside and got hit by a car.”

What was shocking to me was not his statement, but that he admitted it.  He was not a very nice person, but he was so confident that he could admit it and not care what people thought about him.

This CEO started with a few people and built a publicly-traded company.  As could be expected, he’s not good at maintaining long-term relationships with most of his employees.  Once they figure him out, they move on.  He can’t be trusted; I’ve seen him break contracts that he signed, but later decided not to honor.  Plus, every few months, the company had a new strategy.

Nonetheless, he’s been successful if judged only in terms of building a company and creating wealth.  He has the smarts, he’s crafty and he has tremendous confidence.

That caused me to think about what the characteristics of a successful leader are.  There are thousands of books on the topic.  If you google “what makes a good leader,” in a fraction of a second, you get more than 1.5 million entries.

Having been an attorney who’s worked with hundreds of companies and in leadership roles myself, what I’ve learned is that there is no one type of leader.  No one combination of characteristics exists that leads to the corner office at the top of the skyscraper.

Vision is overrated.  It’s important, but once you have the vision, you need to be able to act on it.  This requires a certain amount of organization – the ability to get things done.  You need ambition, so that you actually do act on it.  And you have to make people believe in you; that’s where the confidence comes in.  Plus, there are a few other traits that the books mention, such as keeping cool under pressure and making tough decisions on time, among others.

Yet good leaders come in a myriad of combinations.  What works in one organization or situation may utterly fail in another.  So to say that there’s any one, two, five or ten characteristics that define a leader is wrong because the mix of traits or lack of any one trait depends on the company, the circumstances and the individuals involved in the endeavor.

A difference exists, though, between leaders and those that stand out as great leaders.  The great ones I’ve met have the ability to listen, and let people feel like they’ve been listened to.

And I do think integrity is critical.  The CEO I mention above was successful, but was constantly losing good people.  Had he kept them, his company would have been much larger and much more profitable.

General Colin Powell offers some good thoughts in this leadership primer.

Integrity in Business

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Honesty is the only way to get aheadand stay therein the business world. This sounds like common sense, but it’s surprising how many people don’t understand it, from the juniormost employee to the Chief Executive Officer.

Developing a reputation for being an honest and trustful person is the most valuable asset you have. Without it, all the intelligence or assets you have are meaningless. Contracts, for example, are based on trust. While a written contract should includes protections against disagreements between the parties, few will sign a contract if they expect to end up in litigation because of a a trust issue.

Here’s a situation I know of where trust became a major issue in a mid-sized company. After a merger, the CEO wanted to cut costs. He told an executive to reduce a manager’s pay by 20%. The manager, a popular and effective employee, was in a bind for personal reasons, so she reluctantly accepted the pay reduction. When the CEO heard that the pay reduction was accepted, he told the executive to fire the manager.

Getting rid of the manager had been the CEO’s goal, but the way he did it was dishonest. When word of this incident traveled through the company, it unnerved people. Some of them were shocked at what had happened. The CEO’s action’s didn’t just affect the one individual, it lowered morale among many other employees. Within a couple of months, several key executives and managers left.

The CEO achieved the result he wanted, which was to terminate the manager, but at a great cost to the company. He could have achieved the same result, but if he handled the situation in an honest manner, the effect on others would’ve been greatly diminished.

Trust can be the hardest thing to build, but it’s so easy to lose.

Crafting a Message That Sticks

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I like what Chip Heath, Professor of Organization Behavior at Stanford, has to say about communication in The McKinsey Quarterly.* In this interview, he discusses “sticky ideas,” ones that people remember and that change something about the way they think or act.

Professor Heath states that the best advice is to make messages more concrete. Keeping them simple and credible, emotional and unexpected-with surprises-are other basic traits of sticky ideas. Finally, telling a story makes a message more effective, as “[s]tories act as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”** Good stuff.

* registration is free.

** As a junior lawyer, I had to draft a securities filing for a complicated transaction. I was working with a seasoned attorney in our firm and his advice was to “tell a story.” The point was to make it easier for those reading it (i.e., the regulators at the SEC) to understand. I don’t remember much else about the transaction, but this stuck with me.