Nine Lessons From Three of the Best Leaders in 2019
Leadership is often hard to define. We're sure we know it when we see, and we notice it even more in its absence. Author Kevin Kruse has called leadership 'a process of social influence which maximizes efforts of others towards achievement of a goal'.
With that in mind, I wanted to look at three examples from the last 12 months which I have imprinted in my mind, to learn from and attempt to master.
Leadership in the Face of Tragedy
In March this year, the world was shocked by events in Christchurch. Tens of people killed as a result of fear and hate. New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern acted like no other head of state I’ve witnessed when a similar crisis has struck. It was different for a number of reasons:
- Inclusivity: In the wake of the news Ardern’s comments were measured and notable for the absence of vengeance as she spoke of the love and empathy she had for the victims. By focusing on those affected, she moved the spotlight from the attacker, who didn’t even have a name which was referenced. ‘They were New Zealanders. They are us.’ It helped to frame the public and media discourse of the incident.
Compassion: Leaders dissociate any hierarchical separation between themselves and their people. Ardern prioritised meeting those affected and as a sign of respect, she integrated with her people by wearing the burka and attending the memorial. Her words there acknowledged the community affected and drew on similarity to unite her people. When addressing victims she even asked if they’d be OK with the delay in returning ‘those who have fallen’, so authorities could carry out the necessary investigations. Leaders don’t have to order, they seek permission.
Action: It’s ultimately how leaders are judged. Rather than simply offer thoughts and prayers, Ardern honed her reaction at the cause of the tragedy, gun laws. By acting with logic, driven by emotion she made the necessary changes within one week! A true leader accepts mistakes that may have happened on their watch and takes the necessary actions as soon as possible, to address the problem.
Jack Ma Bids Farewell
I’m sure I’m not the only tech founder who will miss Jack Ma. After creating Alibaba off the back of a chance trip to America, the e-commerce giant today processes more orders than Amazon and eBay combined.
- Succession planning: Jack Ma has known about this day for a long time. He stepped back into the role of Chairman six years ago, offering space for his executive team of Daniel Zhang, Joe Tsai and Maggie Wu to grow. He managed the transition, by making confirming the change a year before he actually left. This gave the media 12 months to still focus on him, and deflected attention from Zhang while he acclimated to the demands of the role. Both internal and external confidence in a company comes from knowing that the leader has a clear and well articulated plan.
- Never stop learning: In a letter to shareholders upon announcement of his retirement Jack Ma said: “I also want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do”. True leaders never stop learning. It’s an insatiable drive which indicates the values and measure of a person.
- Resilience: When I read about Ma’s backstory, it’s truly inspirational. He failed exams multiple times at every level of education. He got turned down by Harvard 10 times. Ma was the only person not hired when applying with 23 others for a position at KFC. His first two startups never went anywhere. But this adversity made failure something to learn from and not fear. He kept believing in himself and after a trip to the US, he saw the potential of computing technology in China and founded Alibaba.
This has been stunning. Nadella’s turnaround of Microsoft has seen shares triple in his five years as CEO. The company even became a trillion dollar one and the world’s most valuable for a brief spell this year. There have been some keys to its success:
Culture: Even from his first keynote in 2014, it became clear the difference between the outgoing and incoming CEOs. Away from the big and bold affairs of the past, Satya Nadella had an intimate venue, reducing the size of the stage to feel more connected with his audience. In that keynote, he announced a partnership with rival Apple for Office on iPad. This would previously have been unheard of, but is evidence that leaders need to focus on their own goals first, and use any partners that will help get them there quicker. With a revised mission to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”, it made sense to partner and increase the distribution of Microsoft’s most widely used product.
Growth Mindset: This could fit within culture, but as it’s been credited by many Microsoft employees as the biggest contributor to Microsoft’s change in fortunes, it’s worth further investigation. According to CMO Chris Capossela: “We went from a culture of know-it-alls to a culture of learn-it-alls”. It has been about reframing individuals’ approach to challenges and how they can improve. When all managers are encouraged to share a collaborative consciousness towards issues, the 130,000 team can grow as a result. For Microsoft this process has been formalised through a management framework of Model Coach Care. Employees have been encouraged to tell their managers if they don’t like their roles and work on a shared beneficial solution.
Focus on what you’re good at: As an executive, Nadella voted against acquiring Nokia. He didn’t want to challenge industry competitors from weak position. He did however see the potential in cloud computing and emerging technologies. Landmark cloud services deals worth billions with the likes of AT&T and most recently the Department of Defence, have seen the Seattle company beat off competition from AWS. He has been clear and transparent with the key focus areas which made sense to him to turn the fortunes of Microsoft around.