What does it take to be a compelling business leader? We hear all this talk about leadership styles but, really, is any one style preferable to the others? In my observation, there is no single, universally superior leadership style.
That being said, there are some universal qualities that successful leaders share, including the ability to inspire trust, the vision to move a company forward, and the foresight to provide the training employees will need to realize that vision.
Inspiring trust is critical. People are not willing to recognize someone as their leader unless they trust them, not just intellectually, but ethically and morally as well. Likewise, people won't follow someone unless they're convinced that person knows where they're going.
When ask to define their leadership style, entrepreneurs often reply, "I lead by example." What they mean is, "I work long, hard hours and will take on any task." Leading by example is terrific, but it's not the be all and end all. Employees aren't dumb. They can recognize effective activity versus meaningless busyness. That's why one of my favorite pieces of leadership advice is "don't do well what you shouldn't do at all."
I suspect that leading by example may sometimes mask a fear of letting go. A true leader doesn't just inspire trust, he or she returns the favor, trusting those who follow. To lead effectively, you must overcome your fear of losing control and allow others to step in. When an employee sees the boss has confidence in him, he becomes more willing to accept responsibility, therefore making a greater contribution to the organization.
Ironically enough, true leaders understand that their business requires more than one leader; someone other than themselves. They know that, ideally, every employee within an organization should take the lead in some situations. And--here's the kicker--true leaders assume responsibility for training and guiding their followers into leadership roles.
I have a friend, a business consultant, who likes to talks about "the three Ps": program, process and people. The program is your vision, your plan. To achieve it, you need to develop a process that allows to you achieve the desired results consistently. To see the process through, you need the right people, people who trust your leadership.
In other words, real leadership is not necessarily doing (i.e. leading by example) but creating a process where average people can consistently achieve better-than-average results.
One of the toughest tests of leadership is the ability to make personnel changes. Rather than do so, too many entrepreneurs will accept mediocre performance. True leaders are willing to make sure they have the "right people on the bus," even if it means ushering some people off. If you are willing to tolerate mediocrity, what does that say about your leadership style?
Over the years, I've encountered many leadership styles with interesting labels: The Benevolent Dictator, Rah-Rah Type, Open Book Manager, Theory X, Theory Y, Autocrat, and Team Builder, for example. They all offer certain pros and cons, which I'll be discussing in more detail in future columns.
More importantly, regardless of what your leadership style is, it can work, providing you employ people who are comfortable with it. And, of course, who trust you.