It Takes Leadership
We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »
If leadership could be summed up in one simple thought, it would be setting an example for others to follow. It's an important concept, especially in tough economic times, when companies are struggling and employees are worried about their careers and their next paycheck. When uncertainty is pervasive and the future lacks predictability, employees need reassurance that their interests, as well as those of upper management, are valued and being protected.
"The only safe ship in a storm is leadership," says Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for the Advancement of Women.
Setting the example means you don't ask someone to do something you wouldn't willingly do yourself. This means setting a standard of excellence for others to aspire to, while giving them the tools, motivation and inspiration to follow you. Employees want their leaders to be truthful and respect them, regardless of their relative position within the organization. Respect works both ways, and it must be earned.
"Leadership is not position," says Stephen Covey, author of several bestselling leadership books. "It's moral authority. Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity and treating people with respect."
When We Think of Great Leaders
If you ask anyone you know to name two or three great leaders from American history, invariably they will name people from politics and the military. You may hear names such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are responsible for some of the most enduring actions of tremendous consequence made in times of national crisis. Perhaps this is why we associate the idea of leadership with people who were in positions of power during crises.
Why are business leaders rarely mentioned in the same breath with these people? Most likely it's because we usually equate running a business with management, rather than leadership. This is a huge mistake. Everyone has his or her own opinion of those in the business world who combine effective leadership and management skills, and the list would be influenced by the age, work experience, location, upbringing, knowledge of history (and other diverse factors) of the person being asked. Today's business leaders come from a variety of different fields and have a significant influence over our daily lives.
Leadership vs. Management
While the terms leadership and management are sometimes used interchangeably, this only confuses two distinct but complementary concepts. When author and contemporary thought leader John Baldoni was asked for his view of how leadership and management interact, he responded: "Management is about control. Leadership is about guidance. To run an organization effectively, you need to control operations and systems, and you need to provide guidance to people. Manage by holding administration tightly, but lead by holding the reins of leadership lightly. Management involves putting the right people into the right places with the right resources. Leadership is about turning those right people loose by setting high expectations, providing coaching and acknowledging achievement."
Both management and leadership have essential roles in business success. Management provides structure, stability and organization, while leadership provides the inspiration, influence and atmosphere for creativity, innovation and self-motivation.
According to author and CEO coach Jim Collins, both leadership and management are vital. "The very best leaders are first and foremost effective managers," he says. "Those who seek to lead but fail to manage will become either irrelevant or dangerous, not only to their organizations, but to society."
"We have all witnessed companies that have been over-managed in the absence of leadership," says Mike Myatt, CEO coach and chief strategy officer of N2growth. "When leadership has been abdicated to management in a corporate setting, you will always find that growth slows, morale declines, creativity wanes and the competitive edge is weakened."
Leadership is something people need, whereas a process is something that can be managed. Both are necessary to make and implement decisions effectively, and to execute strategy.
"Leadership is providing inspiration and vision, then developing and empowering others to achieve this vision," says author, executive coach and professor Marshall Goldsmith. "Management is successfully supervising the achievement of objectives."
Teamwork and a Common Vision
Top leaders think in terms of "we" rather than "I." Gen. George Patton offered a unique perspective on this when he said, "An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap."
When the team succeeds, every member deserves and takes credit; and every member must share responsibility for failures. This approach is a good way of gaining employee buy-in for tough decisions. The employees need to know that the survival and success of the company depend on them as much as on the senior executives. They want to be an integral part of the solution and are willing to sacrifice during tough times so long as they see sacrifice coming from the top first.
While management can be delegated to responsible people, leadership cannot. The best leaders surround themselves with capable people who can perform and supervise the tasks and processes necessary to run a successful business. Leaders understand that getting people united behind them is different than issuing instructions on what those people should be doing. Leaders must focus on the bigger picture and ensure that everyone shares a common vision. This responsibility can't be effectively transferred because that vision must come straight from the top.
You must be willing to make decisions and lead by example. Some consider this the most important quality in a good leader. Leaders should also avoid being surrounded by "yes men" and insist that subordinates be honest, even when they know their comments are not what the leader wants to hear. This enables leaders to anticipate and avoid bigger problems well before they occur by testing the viability and strength of proposed solutions. Open discussion and debate usually lead to better decision-making and a feeling of inclusiveness and ownership for all involved.
Can Leadership be Taught?
This question has been the subject of great debate. There is anecdotal evidence that the greatest leaders throughout history possessed common qualities: charisma, trust, integrity, dedication, and the ability to effectively communicate their vision and inspire people to accomplish it as a close-knit team.
The U.S. spends significant sums every year training leaders at its three major service academies. Training at the service academies is heavily focused on teamwork and selflessness, key attributes for leaders in any environment.
Formal leadership training is also available at many colleges and universities, typically at the graduate level. These intensive programs focus on facing tough business challenges, championing change, team building and leading under pressure. They expose participants to an array of case studies and workshops that feature real-world exercises designed to assess leadership style and develop ways to improve it.
On-the-job training from a mentor can instill the kind of street smarts that can't be taught in schools. If you are fortunate enough to work with or for someone who epitomizes the skills and qualities you want to emulate, observe that person in action. More often than not, successful leaders do not seclude themselves in an ivory tower, but will make themselves accessible to everyone in their organization. They connect with people and make them feel that they are crucial to the organization's ability to prosper.
Management and Leadership in Today's World
Perhaps more than at any other time in our history, leadership in business is a critical element to navigating the troubled waters of the U. S. economy. Supply and demand are being reset to reality, and competition is more intense than ever. The best leaders will bring out the best in their employees, and discover skills and abilities they never knew they had. Good management and leadership are the building blocks that comprise the foundation for every successful business.
Author and management consultant Tom Peters says the management vs. leadership face-off is a false dichotomy. "It is sometimes said that the difference between 'management' and 'leadership' is 'doing things right' vs. 'doing the right thing.'" He contends that both are of equal importance and, if anything, 'doing things right' takes precedence.
Most would agree that there is no magic formula or recipe for becoming a great leader, and certainly no two leaders are alike. In fact, different leadership styles may be needed depending on your specific business model, your employees and your line of business. It takes a different style of leadership to run a high-tech company than to command an army.
Do you treat people with sincerity and respect when you first meet them? Do you help them grow and prosper, and enhance their value to the organization? Do you encourage and motivate them to succeed? Do you make them feel part of an important team? If your answers are "yes," most people would want to work for you.
John Quincy Adams may have said it best: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."