Over the several decades of my working careers (I’ve had at least three distinct careers) I have been to “leadership school” several times, including a memorable class taught by John Kotter, one of the best minds to have researched and consulted on the topic. The variety of approaches covered by these different learning opportunities have convinced me that (a) leaders are born, not made; (b) anyone can improve their capabilities as a leader, but if you’re not born one, you’ll never be a great one; (c) most of my own leadership opportunities were accidental.
I occasionally teach a class on leadership for program and project managers, and as part of the preparation, I chronicled my leadership experience, going all the way back to high school. The only conclusions I could draw were that (a) I had always shown up; (b) I had taken on whatever there was that needed doing; and (c) I hadn’t screwed anything up so badly that no one would let me try again. From this analysis, I’ve concluded that there are some common challenges for leaders: some obvious, some less so.
Here are some of the lessons I have learned about being a leader.
Having a vision matters (a lot). It helps if the vision is a good one, but it’s critical that you have a clear objective and set of central principles toward which everyone can work. It might sound trite, but without a clear view of where you want to go, leadership becomes much more difficult.
Integrity matters (a lot). Integrity is about a lot of things, but to me the central piece is that you should be true to yourself. Your colleagues and employees will quickly detect when you aren’t — and virtually no one can act “out of character” all the time. It’s certainly possible for you to change who you are over time — and “fake it ‘till you make it” isn’t always a bad strategy. But if you use that approach you actually have to make it sooner or later or you’ll just end up as fake.
Accessibility matters. I’ve always had an open-door policy with as flat an organizational culture as possible. Some degree of chain of command is inevitable, but come talk to me if you have an issue, whoever you are, and if we need to pull in the intermediate levels, we will. Hiding away behind a permanently closed door or layers of administrative assistants is foolish. Sure, there will be times you can’t be available “on demand,” but at least block out some parts of your schedule so that you are available
The team matters. Maybe you can actually do everything but you can’t do all that needs doing on your own, no matter how good you are. If for no other reason, you can’t develop good people if you don’t let them do some of the tough things that are needed. As a business leader, you’re a coach, not a quarterback. Your job is to assemble and coach a winning team, not to play every position yourself.
Simplicity matters. I’ve seen a lot of smart people get this one wrong. It’s not easy to think through complex issues to the point that you can explain them simply, but if you can’t you probably don’t really understand them well enough. Simple doesn’t have to mean trivial. The business world is truly a complex place, but complexity often inhibits actions and not everyone needs to get the big picture in order to get their work done. As a leader you are responsible for breaking up the complex into understandable elements that your teams can deliver on.
Now for the challenges:
Realize you are always on stage. It’s easy to forget that everyone you lead is looking at you all the time, often for clues to what you really want from them. Even if your vision is clear, you’re trusted, and your articulation of what’s needed is straightforward, you can’t ever get “off message.” This is just about the toughest leadership lesson to teach, and in my experience not enough attention is paid to it.
Actions matter more than words. If you don’t “walk the talk,” your employees will do what you do, not what you say. I see this in a lot of organizations, and it’s insidious.
Be careful to set the right examples. It took me a long time to get this one right. I’m a workaholic and for many years I routinely worked 80-plus hours a week. Finally, I realized that everyone on my teams was trying to put in the same level of effort (because they thought I expected it, which I did not) and it was burning some of them out. I had to dial back on my own workload to prove that it was OK to work a normal schedule.
Recognize that your time is not entirely your own. I am a fan of the servant leadership approach, but a direct consequence is that you have to do what’s necessary, not just what you want. It’s tough to get this into balance.
Resist the temptation to intervene — unless you have to. Just as you need to let your teams do their jobs, you have to resist the temptation to step in in situations where you are better at the task than the team is. They won’t get better if you always interfere. On the other hand, there will be times when the only way to prevent a disaster is to take control. Judging when is a key leadership skill.
Take responsibility and share credit. Failures or mistakes always occur. You have to be prepared to step up and accept that you are responsible. On the other hand, every success is also a team effort, and it’s the team that should get the credit and recognition.
Work to strengthen your teams. Find, hire, coach, promote and retain the very best people you can, consistent with organizational chemistry and cultural alignment.
Carefully judge what aspects of the culture need to change and then change them. This is the other really tough challenge for a leader. Cultural change is tough and most attempts fail. So only change the things that absolutely have to be changed and do so both carefully and quickly. “This too shall pass” is an easy defense for the resisters.
Not surprisingly, it’s tough to get all this right, all the time. A good friend of mine recently changed to a role where she would no longer be in a leadership position. She had been getting burned out with the need to be always “on.” She’s already getting antsy with the quality of the leadership she must now respond to, though, a problem I am all too familiar with. I’m betting she won’t be able to stay out of the leader persona for very long. Talented leaders never can.
John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago. He has been a global business and technology executive and a strategist for more than 35 years.