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The truth about leadership

A friend was recently lamenting to me about the need to build her leadership skills. Apparently, her staff does not have the same sense of urgency, and they are not driven to performance as she is. Being a member of the C-suite, she felt that it was beholden on her to become a better leader, and through her leadership, the staff would be able to follower her lead towards greater performance. Knowing her, I paused. She is a very driven lady, and that drive has consistently gotten her “out of trouble” and yet into more. Let me give you an example of what I mean; she may use her force of conviction and her high intellect to push people to delivering, but in the end, not only they get sick, but even she does. The relentless pressure that this has placed on them made them physically unwell. And now, it seems the staff are “quietly revolting” against her relentless push for performance. They are willfully stepping back; slowing down. This frustrates her more, but being somewhat self-aware, she thinks that she needs to develop her performance leadership skills. But when I hinted at her that it might not be her leadership skills that needs developing (at least not now), but the performance standards at which she set, I got the brush off. In her mind, so long as she focuses on leading for performance, the staff will follow. That is not leadership, that is task-mastering; and anyone can be a hard taskmaster, but not everyone can be a good leader.

So, in this article, I shall focus on the truth about leadership – having been COO and CEO and been recognized by government leaders in Singapore as a high-performing chief executive.

Truth One: Leadership is not about irrefutable laws or fancy models

Trust me, I have read all the leadership books I could get my hands on in my early training and consulting days. I have read the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, the 7 Habits as well as the 8th, and the Leadership Challenge and many more. One thing I can categorically say is that these are all well and good on paper, until you meet a stubborn, self-centred, self-entitled young upstart who thinks he knows better than you. Then all the 21 irrefutable laws cannot manage that one person! This is because leadership cannot be bundled and packaged into books or a training course. You cannot attend some training or coaching program to make you a leader, you either are one or not. Leadership is therefore, all art; the science just backs up certain aspects of it. Yet, the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts; leadership is much greater than all the laws, models and theories put together. Because if you simply base leadership on models and theories, then you lose one critical aspect – people! Ultimately, you cannot be a leader if no one follows you. A leader leads people; not machines, not programs, not performance, not money!

Let us make this distinction right now; leading and having leadership qualities are two separate entities. If you are a consultant, you will require loads of leadership qualities to influence your clients to act; but you are not a leader in that organisation. Indeed, consultants will need the organisation’s leaders to move the needle. We can advise, but the leaders are responsible for making things work. And let’s talk about the concept of “self-leadership”; it is a great as all concepts go, but let’s be honest, this is not leadership in the true sense of the word. Self-leadership is simply personal motivation or self-discipline. These have always been a given in all individuals, long before the term “self-leadership” came to the fore. Indeed, people who have keen self-discipline and motivation usually rise to the top of the leadership ladder. Is it no wonder that we also label “self-leadership” as a form of leadership? Yet the concept is absurd because leadership is the act of bringing people together to achieve a common goal, but in “self-leadership” there is only you. And you go where you decide to go. Where is the self-leading? There isn’t one! So, while I respect that people will use self-leadership as a form of leadership, I submit that it is just another glorified term for self-discipline and self-motivation, which everybody can have or develop.

In sum, we don’t need to know any of the 21 irrefutable laws to be a world-class leader; but memorizing the 21 irrefutable laws does not make one a leader. Ultimately, to be a good leader, one must understand how to move people to meet the vision.

Truth Two: It is about ALL rowing together

Leadership is about finding the right person for the job and then pointing the person to the right end-goal. A leader cannot blame HR or any other person for a wrongly-hired person since all leaders sign off on the hire. HR can do all the necessary due diligence, but the person who decides who gets hired is the business unit leader. And the leader needs to bear in mind who are currently in the team, and whether the person who joins the team can add value to the whole team. A leader needs to orientate everyone towards the business unit’s goal, and then move the boat towards that goal, and so if someone is unable to fit in with the others in the team, it is best to either not hire him, or if hired, to counsel him to fit in. And if that does not happen, to then let him go. Hiring and firing is a major leadership function.

Yet, leadership is not just getting the team together. It is also in challenging everyone to go beyond their own self-limiting doubts and put the collective end-goal in mind. It is about energizing the team beyond the money. Countless research has been done to conclusively prove that monetary motivations work only to a limited level; in fact, paying more money has been shown to work against performance! In his book, The Upside of Irrationality, Duke university professor Dan Ariely conclusively showed that paying a substantial amount of money to motivate people to do more has actually the opposite effect in performance; people have actually performed far worse with the promise of a high monetary reward, than with other non-monetary recognition. This fact is also promoted by another Dan-named author, Daniel Pink in his book, Drive.

So, if money does not motivate, then what does?

First, having a higher vision for the business unit is key. To have a sense of value far greater than the mere earning of money. Hershey is in the business of selling chocolates, especially custom chocolates. But one day, because of some scheduling issue, Hershey was not able to deliver the custom chocolate in time for a 3-year old girl’s birthday party. The abject disappointment from the mother moved the founder to use her as the poster-girl for the company, to challenge everyone into seeing that Hershey was not about selling chocolates, it was about ensuring that frazzled mothers deliver joy to their children through their custom chocolates on time. This goes beyond the cost of chocolates, the delivery charges, the profits. This is about putting the smile and the happiness into all the three-year-olds in that party! Is it a big goal? You bet! Is it challenging? You bet! Can it be done? You bet! This is what Collins and Porras call in their book Good To Great as the “big, hairy, audacious goal” or BHAG! This must be at the back of everyone’s mind when they come to work – to help make another 3-year old happy, or to help another out-of-job middle ager get a new job, or to help companies reposition for the future! This is the job of the leader – to create that vision, that BHAG!

Next, the leader will need to sell that vision to everyone. And not just once at some fancy kickoff, but every time. We need to remind everyone why we are here, and what we need to do to get to where we want to be. The leader must be the greatest evangelist of the vision. If she cannot articulate what that bigger vision is – much more than the money to be made – she must expect the least amount of work from the staff, not the most.

Thereafter, the leader needs to live the vision. Every person in the team is looking at the leader and her actions towards the vision. If there is dissonance between word and action, then the people will not fall in line. If you talk about teamwork but is never seen with the team; if you talk about self-sacrifice in the face of a tight timeline, but you go back early because that is your prerogative; if you talk about standards and integrity but let some output from your favourite team member slip, you will have completely lost the mandate to lead. This is because people give their trust in exchange for a leader with high team integrity. The minute one is lost, the other will quickly tumble.

And lastly, you need to motivate everyone to row in the same direction. This means you need to show them, you need to highlight their mistakes and how they can do better, you need to encourage them to be more than they were capable of yesterday, all the while challenging them to meet the needs of tomorrow.

Indeed, leadership is about bringing the whole team to row – and keep rowing – towards that big, hairy audacious vision, especially in times when it seems bleakest.

Truth Three: Calibrate standards upwards

There are key results and key result indicators (KRIs); there are key performance and key performance indicators (KPIs). These work together to set up performance standards – the level of professional and business benchmarks that are expected in the delivery of promised results. Normally, the results are handed down to the business unit from the strategy team. While there is a little give and take from these, there is usually more take than give! Hence, we do not expect that senior management will budge too much on the expected results. Now, when the performance expectation is given to you, it is expected that you will calculate the resources that you need to deliver the result. It is also not unexpected to see senior management wanting you to deliver more with less; and you will have to negotiate your way through the different layers to come to some semblance of reality between resources and results.

Now, once you have gotten approval for your resources, the rest is up to you. You will need to put in place a performance plan in such a way that the standards will be met. You will need to discuss, cajole, negotiate, energise, motivate and do everything within your power to set the team headed towards your very own BHAG. Yet, you will need to calibrate the standard to meet their abilities. If it takes one person 1 hour to build 10 widgets, if you had 10 people, you could build 100 widgets an hour. No matter what you do, you will not be able to get the whole line to build 200 widgets an hour, unless of course there is spare capacity. What you might have to do is to reorganize some work, shorten some distance travelled, combine some processes or retool some jigs. What you cannot do is sit from your ivory tower and demand that the line perform better, without any form of input from you. And just because you personally can build 20 widgets in an hour, it does not mean that everyone in the team can do that! Hence expecting that they will be able to perform at the same level as you may not be realistic – for a start. This standard will need to be calibrated and moved upwards. And through a lot of socializing with your team, challenging them and exhorting them to do better, everyone gets aligned with, and energized by, your BHAG!

Therefore, the work of the leader is to move the team up, calibrating the standards upwards so that you help them to achieve what you need them to. Standing from afar and demanding the standard without any measure of help tantamounts to giving birth to a child and expecting the child to grow up on his own and become like you – and we all know that is impossible!

Truth Four: Maintain an agile team

Businesses evolve. From a one-man show, it becomes a two-man. From two to four, four to eight, and very soon, the business can only be run by 20 people, with a net profit margin far lower than when it was a one-man show! Sometimes, business owners lament the “good old days” when everything can be done by just one or two people. But there is really no way to unwind the business and start afresh, even if the founders are willing and able to. Why? Because the business has grown, and it is now its own social entity with people’s families relying on it. Indeed, the business owner is now just one of its employees. And with that, they no longer become the de facto expert. They no longer know all the answers. They no longer can make 200 widgets in an hour because the process had evolved. Does that make them less of a leader?

The answer is emphatically no!

But what this means is that the leader must build a capable, reliable team, and put them in charge. He must put in capable people who will be responsible to bring the whole business together for the larger goal. This brings me back to Truth Two, to get everyone in the boat to row together, and still be as agile as it was when it was just two or three people in the company. This means that decisions need to be devolved; it cannot still sit at the top. That will slow everything down. Some decisions should only be made on a committee level, while others can be made by the responsible party. This also means that you need to accept that there are some wrong decisions; that you lose some money along the way. That is part and parcel of building an agile team. But, no matter what, you got to have their back. You have to admonish them yet support them, to educate them yet motivate them. This is how you build a high-functioning, agile team to take your business higher.

So, what is the truth about leadership?

  1. Leadership is not about your position.

  2. Don’t expect people to perform at your level, teach them to.

  3. A good leader exhorts people to go beyond what they normally thought possible – not be telling, but by showing

  4. Great leaders use their personal charisma to pull everyone to strive to achieve their big, hairy, audacious goal

  5. And as the team grows, the leader devolves authority further down to make decisions, understanding that there will be some wobble. Such wobble is necessary to sharpen the saw for the team.

  6. An outstanding leader wants the team to succeed, and helps them to by giving them all the resources to!

In a way, great leaders humanize the work, and motivates the human. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that!

I wish you all the best!

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