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The three most over-used, yet misunderstood, words in the business vocabulary are: innovation, disruption and leadership. It’s incredible how many people throw these terms around without being clear on what they actually mean.

Leadership, in particular, can play a massively important role in determining an enterprise’s success or failure, so it’s critical to understand it properly.

The most experienced and consistent practitioners of the art of leadership are the military, who operate in situations where lives (and victory) depend on the willingness of men to follow orders. As a result, business has much to learn from the armed forces, not least an accurate and concise definition of leadership.

Discussion of leadership is so often overloaded with vague but emotive ideas that one is hard put to it to nail the concept down. To cut through the panoply of such quasi-moral and unexceptionable associations as “patriotism”, “play up and play the game”, the ever-asking-your-men-do-something-you-wouldn’t-do-yourself” formula, “not giving in (or up)”, the “square-jaw-frank-eyes-steadfast-gaze” formula, and the “if… you’ll be a man” recipe, one comes to the simple truth that leadership is no more than exercising such an influence upon others that they tend to act in concert towards achieving a goal which they might not have achieved so readily had they been left to their own devices.

– Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1975)

Or, to express it more simply:

Leadership is the phenomenon that occurs when the influence of A (the leader) causes B (the group) to perform C (goal-directed behavior) when B would not have performed C had it not been for the influence of A.

– William Darryl Henderson, Cohesion: The Human Element in Combat (1985)

The great thing about this definition is that it transcends circumstances, situations, methods and objectives – it’s as applicable to Gandhi as it is to Churchill – and it makes no value judgements, so it also covers the type of leadership displayed by Hitler and Osama Bin Laden.

The nature of the leader’s influence over the group can vary. It could be institutional, as in the case of military officers and bosses within a hierarchical organisation, or it could be derived purely from the leader’s personality – some leaders persuade and inspire their followers; others bully and browbeat.

Leadership is about making a difference by acting as a catalyst. If, back in 2001, you had assembled the people currently employed by Space X in a room and told them “Let’s build a rocket to resupply the International Space Station”, could they have done it? Or was Elon Musk’s leadership a critical element in their success? Would Apple be where it is today without Steve Jobs?

It’s also important to note that the leader is not necessarily the person who is titularly in charge of the group. Leadership is about influence, not authority, so it’s perfectly possible to be a leader within a group of one’s peers, despite having no authority over them. Leaders don’t need to have a grand vision. A pure and simple objective can be just as effective. When Bob Geldof got some of his friends together to make a record to raise some money to help famine victims in Ethiopia, he couldn’t imagine how big Band Aid would become.

What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?

Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.

– General Colin Powell

Leadership is about people, whereas management is about resources.

leadershipCan leadership be taught? This is a matter of opinion. Military academies seek to train military leaders but they are very selective and many officer candidates drop out. Business schools may claim that they train business leaders but possession of an MBA does not necessarily a leader make.

I personally think that leadership is a combination of raw talent, learned skills, personality and experience. Exactly how they combine is open to debate but the most plausible explanation I’ve come across so far, is laid out in the book Geeks and Geezers by Warren G Bennis and Robert J Thomas. Their theory is that leadership is forged in what they call “crucibles” – “utterly transformational [and, often, traumatic] experiences from which one can emerge either hopelessly broken or powerfully emboldened to learn and to lead”. I can see how such experiences can temper one’s personality and foster both self-confidence and a realistic understanding of one’s limitations.

What makes a good leader? This is incredibly subjective, if for no other reason than the definition of “good” will vary from person to person – some people prefer to follow a strong, authoritative leader, while others will bridle at being told what to do. The situation is also relevant – Gandhi and Churchill were two of the greatest leaders of the 20th century but they were very different people. Every leader is unique.

I have my own thoughts about what people should do if they hope to be a good leader. Obviously, some leadership qualities can’t be simply switched on, no matter how hard you try – you can’t suddenly decide to become charismatic or confident, for example – but there are certain behaviours that are a matter of choice.

  • Listen – We have two ears and one mouth. They’re in that ratio for a reason. Listen to what people have to say and, by “listen” I don’t just mean that you should keep your mouth shut until they finish talking. I mean that you should pay attention to what they’re telling you and give it due consideration – don’t just ignore it or dismiss it out of hand. If it’s important enough for them to speak to you about it, then it’s important enough for you to give some thought to. If people think you don’t listen to them, they’ll conclude that you don’t care about their problems and they stop coming to you. Not only do you risk losing their respect and incurring their resentment, but you may also find that problems fester and grow much larger than they would have had they been nipped in the bud. Also, be aware that some people have difficulty telling truth to authority, so never do anything that could discourage anyone from telling you the truth, even if it’s bad news.
  • Be honest – People are far more likely to follow someone if they trust her, and honesty is a key element in engendering trust (the others are competence and reliability). Don’t lie to or mislead your people, and be as open as you can. 
  • Be prepared to say “I don’t know.” – Following on from the last point, if someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, don’t try and cover up your ignorance. My standard response to a question I can’t answer is: “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.”
  • Know your shit – Of course, you don’t want to be saying “I don’t know” all the time. Make sure that you possess the knowledge required to lead your team. The nature and depth of knowledge will vary depending on the objective, and assessing this is a skill in itself. My approach is to ensure that I understand what people are doing, even if I’m not capable of doing it myself. To give an example, if you’re leading a team of developers, you don’t necessarily need to learn how to code but you should probably make sure that you’re familiar with the software development lifecycle, and understand the differences between the waterfall and agile methodologies.
  • Be reliable – Another key component of trust is reliability. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it or have a good reason for not doing so. Failing to deliver on your promises is a good way of alienating your team because it sends the message that you don’t care about them, and if you don’t care about your team, why should they care about you?
  • Be fair – Good leaders don’t have favourites. They treat everyone equally and apply the same standards across the board. If you start treating different members of your team differently, it can lead to resentment and disfunction within the team. Be aware that unfairness often stems from emotion. If something happens that makes you angry, don’t react immediately. Give yourself a timeout to calm down and think before reacting in a considered and measured manner.
  • Be patient – This is probably my biggest failure as a leader. I have a hot temper and get frustrated easily, which is a perfect recipe for impatience. The people on your team have different skill-sets and knowledge than you. They’re not always going to be able to do things as well or as quickly as you can (or as you think they should be able to). If the problem is a failure to understand what’s required, take a deep breath and remember that, as leader, it’s your job to communicate to your team what they need to do. Exhibiting exasperation or losing your temper isn’t going to help matters.
  • Be prepared to admit that you were wrong – If you screw up (and everyone does, sooner or later), admit it and apologise. Nobody’s perfect, everybody makes mistakes and your team will accept that. Refusing to admit to one’s mistakes is a sign of weakness and indicative of a lack of self-confidence.
  • Accept responsibility and share the credit – As a leader, you are responsible for the actions of your team. Once again, I defer to a military man whose words on the topic are far better than mine:

Responsibility is a unique concept: it can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance, or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the person who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.

– Admiral Hyman G Rickover, United States Navy

My rule of thumb is that if there’s a screw-up, it’s my responsibility, but successes are credited to the team or to individual team-members. Giving credit where its due is a great way of motivating people and making them feel good about the work they’re doing. Taking credit for others’ work will, of course, have the opposite effect.

  • Delegate – Just as you can’t do everything (that’s why you have a team, after all), accept that you can’t oversee everything. Delegating not only reduces your workload, it also provides an opportunity to help your team-members develop and gain more experience, which can be a great motivator. Once you’ve delegated something, adopt a light touch – monitor progress but resist any urge to interfere or micro-manage. Let them achieve the objective in their own way.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

– General George S Patton

  • Pay attention to detail – This is a tricky one because, while you should resist the urge to micro-manage, you still need to ensure that the team’s output is up to scratch and that means keeping an eye on the details. Success or failure is often determined by the little things, which are all too easy to overlook if you adopt a “30,000 feet” view. You need to trust your team to deliver by themselves but verify that they’ve delivered what they need to.
  • Lead by example – This is fairly simple. If you expect your team to deliver high-quality work, you need to set the bar. If you expect your team to work 80-hour weeks, you need to be prepared to do the same. It doesn’t mean that you need to be first in and last to leave but it does mean that you need to exhibit (and be seen to be exhibiting) the same degree of commitment that you expect from your team. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it.
  • Be yourself – To be an effective leader, I believe that, first and foremost, you have to be yourself. Some people try to change their behaviour or personality to emulate what they perceive as being the perfect leader but I think that, when the pressure’s on, people revert to type and their real personality emerges. You need to be comfortable with your leadership style in order for it to be effective. For me, that means being authentic to oneself. Accept and be open about your faults and shortcomings. Remember that, although the people you’re leading form your team, you’re also part of that team, and you want to ensure that they are aware of your limitations so they have the opportunity to back you up when you need it.

Written by jackgavigan

March 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm

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