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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