OK, we’ve all heard and talked about it, so what does strong leadership look like? It is action, not words. Results, not rhetoric. We, not me. Leadership is practiced not so much in our words, but in our attitudes and our actions. Since it cannot be taught, but must be learned through application and experience, the only real training for leadership is leadership. There is one first critical ingredient needed to be a great leader, and great leadership is not possible without it. That ingredient is positive intent – the degree of care and concern for the goals and agendas of the organization and those in it. We must care about people, our impact on them, their development and well-being. The best leadership involves personal sacrifice and it therefore takes incredible courage. We must be willing to put the needs of others above our own. It is not that we should think less of ourselves, but rather think of ourselves less. True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers who we are developing into the next generation of leaders, not the enrichment of the current leaders. After all, without employees and customers, I don’t have a business, and guess who serves the customer that pays my salary? I as the leader am certainly not the face and voice the customer sees or hears. We need business leadership which goes beyond short term shareholder value to care about the needs and fears of other stakeholders and their communities.
After beginning with positive intent, the next key essence of leadership is vision. A vision is a picture of the future that inspires excitement in its recipients. It’s got to be a vision you articulate passionately, clearly, forcefully and often. The author Andrew Stanley said “if your vision is for a year, plant wheat; if your vision is for ten years plant a tree; if your vision is for a lifetime, plant people. In order for people to follow someone, they will need to know where they are following you to.
The third key element of leadership is personal values. These are the codes of conduct that guide your behaviors every day. Since they are what you truly believe, they are reflected continuously in what you say and do. These behaviors cannot be faked, they will come to be seen naturally, especially during times of stress, they apply in and out of the workplace, and they should be a model that others wish to emulate. But perhaps the supreme value for leadership is integrity. Without it, no real success is possible. Positive influence is not possible, trust is not possible, and therefore developing others is really not possible. And like the other elements of leadership such as care, serving others, personal values and vision, it is not possible to fake it. It is only a matter of time before our leadership behaviors reflect our true beliefs and real leadership character, and this will be especially so during times of stress.
Which brings us to the fourth element of leadership, and that is the final combining of intent, vision and values with competence. And since the key is applying all these critical success factors towards people, I refer to the competence to develop others who will follow you. When you are a great leader, you attempt to hire people better than yourself, yet who are in turn willing to follow you because of your leadership attributes we discussed, and your resulting confidence. One very pragmatic measure of leadership is this: the caliber of people who choose to follow you. Most people will eagerly follow those who care about them, who invest in their development, and in whom they can put their trust. The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority. The signs of outstanding leadership will appear not in the leader herself, but primarily among her followers. Are people reaching their potential? Are they learning? Are their people serving the goals and agendas of others with positive intent? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace and professional competence? Would they say they are well informed? Manage conflict well? These are the true outward signs of the presence of great leaders.
Does this give you an idea as to why great leadership is so rare and so difficult, and yet so critical? It takes strong desire, incredible courage and a persistent act of our will to want to be set apart from the crowd and become a great leader. Just as we have already talked about, it is simple, but not easy. And like so many other things, we start with the personal intent or root of the needed desire to put in the effort and change to become a great leader. Then, once we have the drive and motivation, we need to find coaches and mentors to help develop us. Does this sound possible for you personally?
To give you some encouragement, let me give you some examples of things you are likely already doing that are the result of first developing a strong intent and motivation. You likely save and invest a little money each year – not because it is a good idea, but because you love and care about your family. You take an annual vacation – not just because you need a rest, but because you need time to revel in the relationships that really matter in your life. You NEED time with other people dear to you, your friends and family away from the workplace, because it rejuvenates your soul. You attend seminars and training from firms such as AdviSoar – not just because you are invited, but because you are looking for anyway possible to better yourself and gain an edge in your careers. All these things are the result of personal intent and motivation. If you decide to become a greater leader, and I implore you to do so, it will have a foundation of strong personal motivation. Strong enough to make you do not only things differently, but also different things (remember our definition of insanity). For some of you, this missive will be a call to action and may provide the motivation required. For others, you may someday work for a person that is such a terrible leader and has been so destructive to the people around him or her, that you vow to be the complete opposite – and you might remember reading this and call me. For others, it is a life-altering event. That was the case for me.
I told you in an earlier blog that I became a practitioner of positive intent leadership as a result of two major events in my life. In another blog I told you about the situation in the Middle East. Well, the second one had an even greater impact on me. After the events in the Middle East, I became purposeful about recruiting and developing teams and future leaders. One of my proudest accomplishments is that several of the people I invested in are now in executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. But while I focused my investment in others, I was not good at applying what I learned to my own life, until one very important day. It was November 17th, 1994. I was in Singapore in the middle of a three week planned trip through about half a dozen countries when I realized that my oldest son had become a teenager two days earlier. I had forgotten all about it and I knew he was likely hurt and very disappointed, and he had every right to be. That year I had probably been in more than thirty countries, I traveled pretty well every week and was usually gone for more than a week at a time. My bride did complain about it, but I was used to brushing it off with the “I gotta make a living” excuse. That day it hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t explain to you how devastated I was and how miserable I felt, but it shook me enough that I called my boss and told him I needed to quit and return home immediately to spend time with my family before I lost them. I then called home to apologize and tell them I was coming home and that we needed to talk. It was a major turning point in my life, and it probably saved my family. From that point on, I realized that as long as I was worshiping the work god and the money god, I would never be satisfied. At that moment, those things just didn’t seem to matter to me anymore. I sat in silence and in tears realizing that I had been a deceived fool all those years. Friends, I want to tell you directly that nothing is worth losing our families over. I guess I always thought that divorce happened because people just grew apart. I think now that it happens because we make it obvious to our families where they sit in the overall hierarchy of things in our lives. This is more likely for men, but when we touch the brass ring, we find that we also keep hitting it out of reach. If I just make twice as much money as now, if I just get that new car, if I just get the next promotion, … if I just get a new wife … You can see where I am heading. For me, I just had to have a hit in the head hard enough to make me realize just how blessed I really was. I had it all; I just didn’t realize it. Now I realize. I have a wonderful bride of 32 years that I adore, two sons that love me and are liked and admired by their peers, and friends who are my joy and often my heroes. I guess I became a better leader once I became a better person. I think we probably don’t become strongest as leaders until we change our intent to lead others, and instead choose to serve them more faithfully.
You probably all know by now that my motivation has completely changed from a dozen years ago. I have a new set of priorities that include my relationship with my Creator, my relationship with my family and close friends, and then my work. I have learned that when my purpose and intent, helping good people do great things, is in alignment with my personal values, then I have a blessed life that makes a difference in other people’s lives.
So let me close with a personal call to action. Throw away those books and CD’s on inspirational leadership and send the consultants home. Know your job well and be thankful for it, set a good example for the people under you by serving them as your highest priority, and put long term results over the politics of the current urgency. Let your actions speak for your values. Learn also how to serve those above you. To be a great leader, you must also learn to be a great follower, to be willing and able to submit to the authority of another.
My plea to those leaders I coach is to become a leader that makes a difference. Start to do it now. Your business, your family and your country needs it. As my dad said to me, you can do anything if you want it bad enough to make sacrifices and work hard. Many people will not do this because of the effort and amount of change involved. But if you want the things tomorrow that others won’t have, you need to be willing to do the things today that others won’t do.