Q. As my company grows, I'm starting to focus on improving my leadership skills. What are the keys to becoming an outstanding leader?
A. The following exercise has been conducted hundreds of times. Without exception, the results are directionally the same. Participants are asked to think of the name of a great leader. Someone whose leadership prowess they greatly admire. They are then asked to list the three most important characteristics of the leader they selected. As you can imagine, there is considerable variation in the lists, but there is also most often some overlap. Words such as “decisive,” “inspiring,” and “visionary” are often on the list.
Interestingly, some of the characteristics people list are virtual opposites of each other. For example, the lists often contain both “passionate” and “unemotional.” “Big picture thinker” and “detail oriented” have appeared at the same time, as have “good listener” and “decisive, not easily persuaded by others.” The fact is that leaders utilize a wide variety of competencies.
The participants are then asked to share the name of the leader they selected. The list of names will include former bosses, coaches and mentors of the participants. It will also include famous leaders such as Lee Iacocca, Vince Lombardi, Martin Luther King, Jack Welch, George Patton, Mahatma Gandhi, Bear Bryant, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, Tommy Lasorda and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s not surprising that this diverse group of leaders would generate the list of vastly different characteristics described above. The question is then asked, “What does this group of diverse leaders have in common?”
The answer is that they all led organizations, teams or countries that succeeded under their leadership. Successful leaders lead organizations that achieved great things. No one ever lists the coach who had a lifetime record of 26 wins and 189 losses or the CEO whose company had flat sales and stagnant profits.
Without exception, great leaders are people who led organizations that achieved its goals. If you want to measure the quality of a leader, look at the success of the organization he or she runs. The key to being a great leader is to set goals and achieve results, full stop! The new leadership paradigm is about goal achievement.
Our country is filled with corporations that have performance management systems based on competencies. Someone, usually an HR person, has tried to identify a set of characteristics that will result in good leadership at the various levels of the corporation. Everyone, from front-line supervisors to senior managers, is evaluated against these competencies. These evaluations drive compensation and the likelihood of promotion.
The implicit assumption is that if managers at each level in the organization possess the appropriate characteristics, they will be successful. Unfortunately, we demonstrated above that successful leaders possess a wide range of often-conflicting characteristics. The fact is that two people whose outward characteristics look very different can both be successful leaders. Evaluating the quality of a person’s leadership by comparing them to a set of competencies is a fundamentally flawed approach.
The new paradigm for leadership focuses on goal achievement within the context of the organization’s values. For example, George Patton was without question a great leader and a successful general, but given his style, it is unlikely that he could have been a successful leader in the church. His behavior would be at odds with the value system of that organization.
Creating success in your company is a matter of establishing a process that causes realistically high goals to be set at each level of the organization. The goals must be aligned with the overall strategy of your business and with each other. People must then be held accountable for achieving their goals within the values of your organization. In our experience such a system will not only deliver outstanding results, but will also develop outstanding leaders for the future.