Category Archives: Leadership

Let’s Start at the Beginning–What is Leadership?

What is Leadership?

This is the most important question in any discussion on  how to build your personal leadership skills.  It is also the most difficult to answer.  Leadership is a behavior.  Leadership is a perception.  Leadership is a process.  Leadership is a set of skills.  Leadership is a position.  All of these are true.  And all of these are inadequate to define leadership.  Most importantly, leadership is in the eye of the beholder.  What you believe about leadership shapes your belief about how leaders should behave.  What the people who behold you as a leader believe about leadership shapes what they require of you as a leader.  What is happening at the time–the circumstances–shape what is required of you as a leader.  So . . . what you believe about leadership is only one small element of what should be shaping you as a leader if you want to be an effective leader.

So How Do You Figure This Out?

You start any investigation of leadership by examining your own experience.  When you think of the best leaders you have ever known, what characteristics did they have?  What behaviors?  What knowledge? How did they make you feel?  How did they communicate with you and others.  Was there a difference?  How did they delegate?  How did they handle the big picture?  How did they handle the detail?  Were they outgoing or were they introverted?  Were they smart?  Did the people who worked for them like them?  Did they get along with their peers? Whatever your answers to these questions, chances are that is what creates your concept of a “good” leader.

Your “good” leader had some negative characteristics too, though.  What did s/he do wrong?  Or, just not right?  What were the flaws, character, career or leadership, that your ‘best’ leader had.

Now, make a similar list of characteristics, behaviors, skills, knowledge of your “worst” leaders.  Why were they such bad leaders?  What did they do wrong?  What was it that set you on edge about them?

Now—put your “honest” hat on.  For the “bad” leader to actually have a leader role, s/he must have done something right.  What were the good qualities of your “worst” leader?  If you still have your “honest” hat on, the good and bad characteristics/skills/behaviors of both the “best” leader and the “worst” leader are likely to have some overlap.  If not, go back and adjust your “honest” hat and look again.

How People Become Leaders

Combinations of skills, traits, experiences, behaviors, and circumstances come together to put people in leadership roles.  One of my favorite stories–possibly apocryphal, but it makes the point nonetheless–is that Winston Churchill was a failure as a leader until World War II came along and the English people needed Churchill’s specific combination of skills.  True?  I’m sure there is another version or two of this story.  However, there are specific circumstances that call out for specific skill sets from leaders.  A leader who is great in a steady state, leading a large stable organization is not necessarily the right leader for a small entrepreneurial organization, or vice versa.

Baking a Cake

Becoming a leader is like baking a cake from scratch–a little of this, some of that, stir it up and bake it at the right temperature for the right length of time.  Becoming a leader is a lot more complicated than that too.  Becoming a leader requires you to be a learning machine.  It requires you to evaluate yourself in a richly open and objective way.  It requires you to push yourself to have experiences and to reflect about those experiences.  It requires you to try things that don’t work and learn from them.  It requires you to learn to listen and trust and experiment.  It requires you to remain flexible throughout.  There is not a leader anointing body that picks you and says “thou art a leader.”

If you want to be a leader, then I invite you to stay tuned through this series of posts on leadership.  I invite you to challenge yourself to answer the questions and reflect on your own knowledge of leadership.  I challenge you to talk to others about leadership.  It’s up to you.

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Are You A Born Leader?

Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?

I recently had someone ask me if I believed that leaders could be created.  I actually was very surprised.  I thought everyone knew that leaders could be developed.  Haha.  Note to self:  EVERYONE doesn’t know anything.  Second note to self:  Just because you believe something, that doesn’t mean it is a fact to be known by everyone.  Third note to self:  Never, never, never forget that your “facts” aren’t everyone’s facts.

Born or Made, Other Things Are Involved

OK.  I’m done with my lectures to myself.  Let’s look at whether leaders can be developed.  First of all, I’ve spent a reasonable amount of my life teaching Leadership at the graduate level, and I’ve developed and implemented Executive Development programs.  I’ve WATCHED people grow leadership skills.  Were they born with nascent skills that became more dominant?  In other words, were they born leaders?  Maybe.  But they weren’t great leaders, and then when they were exposed to ideas, to new ways of thinking and interacting, when they practiced, they became better leaders.  In fact, frequently, they began to see themselves as leaders and began to consciously behave as leaders.

The Center for Creative Leadership, which does great research and training on leadership, recently asked C Suite leaders whether they believed that leaders are born or made.  Fifty eight percent of those asked believe, like me, that leaders are made.  Nineteen percent believe that they are born and twenty nine percent believe that it is both.  If leaders are born, then there isn’t much we can do to grow leaders.  However, if they are born with potential, then of course there are things that can be done to make them better leaders.

Let’s start with what creates a leader.  If a leader is born, then it is his/her personal characteristics and traits that makes him/her a leader.  Presumably these folks would show leadership capabilities at a very young age.  What is interesting about that, though, is that how children are judged as “leaders” is very different than how adults are judged as “leaders.”  I once participated in an effort to develop “leaders” at the middle school level.  We surveyed their teachers as to what characteristics demonstrated leadership and the results were eye-opening.  Most teachers thought that the best leaders in the class were those who behaved themselves, were quiet and did their work.  Imagine that being the criteria in an Executive Development program for a corporation.

I think most people would agree that these personal characteristics are a part of what makes a leader. The dispute is just about how much these characteristics matter.  The other things that contribute are leadership training and experiences.  The same Center for Creative Leadership  (CCL) Survey, asked both those who thought leaders  were born and those who thought leaders were grown how much these other factors played in leadership development.  Interestingly, both groups thought all played a role–they just varied in how much of a role.  Those who believed in the ‘born’ method thought that traits were  31%, learning  28%, and experiences were 38% of the development of leaders.  Those who believed in the ‘made’ method thought that traits were  20% , learning 34%, and experiences were 46% of the development of leaders.

The bottom line–whether leaders are ‘born’ or are ‘made,’ your own self development can have quite an impact on your leadership capabilities.

It’s Up to You

You can sit around and wait for your organization to “develop” you.  You can mourn the fact that you aren’t “one of the chosen high potentials” in your organization.  You can decide that you can’t afford an MBA or an Executive certificate.  OR you can get to work on developing yourself.  What do you know about leadership?  Have you read about Situational Leadership?  Have you read the Leadership Challenge? Do you know the theories of leadership? Do you understand power?  Do you know when to use which kind of power? What role does charisma have in leadership? What experiences can you add to your resume that will grow your leadership abilities?

Stay Tuned

This is the first of a series of posts focused on growing your leadership knowledge, practical knowledge, skills and confidence.

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Leaders Are Not Followers

I know.  I know.  There is a school of thought that leaders can/should be good followers.  I’m not saying that leaders can’t follow directions, or act appropriately within their hierarchy.  I don’t think leaders are followers.  I think leaders think for themselves.  Think. For. Themselves.

  • They challenge the status quo.
  • They think about what they would do if “it were my problem.”
  • They do not sit at the level in the organization and not speak up when something needs to be said.Leaders Aren't Followers
  • They step up.
  • They take responsibility.
  • They take risks.
  • They fail.
  • They pick themselves up and do it again.
  • And they teach their followers to do the same.

Leadership is about how you handle yourself. It is about how you think.  It is about how you act.  If you do these things, people will follow you–even if they are leaders too.

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Does Aggressive Leadership Work?

BadBossThe Rutgers Coach

I had breakfast with a group of friends this morning, evenly divided male/female.  The topic of the Rutgers coach who got fired came up.  I don’t think anyone in the discussion had seen more than a brief clip of the video that detailed the coach’s aggressive behavior toward his athletes.  “Like Bobby Knight” was a quick comparison that came up in the discussion.  Then someone said, “That aggressive style works.”  Participants (all male) in the discussion cited their own experiences with aggressive coaches or bosses and defended that style as effective.  (Since none of these folks had seen the video, they were not defending this coach’s behavior specifically, but an aggressive coaching/leadership style generally).

My position was that aggressive leadership styles work as long as the leader is physically present or likely to be in the vicinity, but that “when the cat is away” the style stops working.  In fact, it is my experience that aggressive (or worse, abusive) styles are more destructive than constructive because they create negative reactive behaviors, damage employee/leader  (or coach/athlete) relationships, and are short term effective, long term destructive.  They rely on bullying rather than inspiring.

So, I throw this out to you.  What do you think.  Does the aggressive style used by some coaches and lots of managers work?  Is it ok?  Is it productive or destructive?  Is it more acceptable for those who have experienced it in their lives than for those who have not, but have only watched it from afar?

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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Leaders Don’t Give Up

Don't give up

Leaders Come In All Flavors

I have recently had the opportunity to watch some really good leaders in action.  They were all different kinds of people.  They were different genders, ages, backgrounds and experience.  The thing that I noticed that they had in common was that they didn’t give up.  They were persistent.

They Don’t Give Up

One leader said, in the face of overwhelming frustration among his followers, “Let’s just muscle through this.”  His followers were definitely ready to throw in the towel–they just couldn’t figure any other way.  The task in front of them felt insurmountable.  I watched as the group collectively shrugged–without much hope–but with a willingness to follow.  The leader asked questions, got answers.  Others asked questions, got answers.  The energy of the group started to go up.  Suggestions started to fly.   These were countered by other suggestions.  Solutions were identified.  Action plans developed.  Schedules.  Commitments.  The group left with a plan and energy and hope.  And it started with a mere statement.  “Let’s just muscle through it.”

Another leader coached members of a group on how to start again when their jobs had gone away.  Her job had also gone away, but she was completely focused on helping the others to see the possibilities.  As I watched, the leader and her coachees devised a plan to start a business.  It was a brilliant idea and it bubbled out of the blended despair of the followers and the persistent support and hope of the leader.

Leaders provide hope. 

They provide clarity.  They provide direction, and pull more direction out of their followers.  They don’t accept the status quo.  Even when they can’t specifically see the way forward, they keep looking.  They don’t let others give up either.  They see that the solution might be just around the corner.  They keep looking and keep pushing.  If one direction is wrong, they turn and try another.

What about you?

Do you give up?

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Should Your Subordinates Like You?

Should you be liked OR respected?

iStock_000019473325XSmallThis post is a follow on to my last post, Underground Relationships.  One of my readers said that he had a boss tell him that people working for you shouldn’t like you, just respect you.  He asked what I thought about that.  I have heard people say this, and in fact I myself have said a variation of that.  I have said that you don’t have to be liked, but you should be respected.  Different, but maybe someone who heard me say that could interpret it the same way.  I think it’s a great question:  How important is it that your subordinates like you?  Should you work to be liked? Is it ok if they like you?

There is a reasonably good argument that if your people respect you, if you do the right things, if you are kind and thoughtful and a clear communicator, then your people will like you.  There are a lot of reasons, though, that this may not be true.  Some people just don’t like managers–no matter who they are or how they act.  Some people react badly to peers being promoted to be their manager.  (See Promoted to Manage Your Peers?  Awkward.)  Whatever the reason, there is no guarantee that subordinates will like their bosses.

So how hard should you work to get your subordinates to like you?

Let’s start with my reader’s boss’ statement: “the people working for you shouldn’t like you, just respect you.”  I have to say that I don’t agree with this statement.  In an ideal world, your subordinates should both respect you and like you.  The quality of work life is significantly better if there is both respect and a level of affection in both directions.  The important thing is to be very clear on where your responsibility as a manager lies.  You are an employee with a fiduciary duty to the organization to deliver strategic results.  As an employee of the organization, managers must do what the organization needs.  Sometimes those things don’t make subordinates happy.  Sometimes those things don’t make managers happy.  On the other hand, managers also have a responsibility to adhere to their own ethical standards.  Those standards include what they are willing to do for the organization and how they must treat employees and co-workers.

Now let’s look at the statement that I’ve made in the past: “you don’t have to be liked, but you should be respected.”  What I meant by this was that you should do the “right” things, things that make you respected, but you shouldn’t do things with a goal of being liked.  The question my reader posed has made me rethink this.  It is my experience that there are some people in management positions who have a really hard time doing things that will impact their likeability.  I believe that this is the wrong thing to use as a guideline when you are a manager.  Your responsibility is first–what is right for the organization, second–what is right for your people, and I don’t see a time when your likeability should be a factor.

Unfortunately, though, it isn’t as easy as that.  It’s really hard to find the lines that divide these things.  What is right for the organization may be bad for the people; what is right for some people may be wrong for others; what is right for your subordinates may be wrong for other parts of the organization.  Finding your way through these  mazes is easier if you have strong relationships with people at work.  If they trust you, and if you communicate clearly as to your reasons and the context, it is easier to find a balance between hard decisions that create unhappiness and sustaining organization performance and relationships.

So what do you do?

  • Get clear on what your personal ethical belief is about how people should be treated and how those decisions should get made
  • Get clear on what you believe is your responsibility to the organization as a boss
  • Find your personal balance between these (understand that whatever you decide here could cause you problems–with your boss, your organization or your subordinates–but you’ve got to live with your decisions/behavior)
  • Listen to HEAR what your people are thinking and going through
  • Communicate clearly with your subordinates about the context and reasons for why decisions have been made, acknowledging the costs to people who are affected–this is absolutely the most important action in being respected/liked
  • As long as you are comfortable with your personal decisions about how you navigate, live with the consequences

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Undercover Relationships

iStock_000010920428XSmall

Undercover Boss

One of my guilty pleasures is the TV show Undercover Boss.  I know it is probably orchestrated and you only get to see the powerful parts, but I love watching it.  I am constantly amazed at how amazed the bosses are at what goes on in their organization.  It is a regular reminder to me that if people just talk to each other, are “real” with each other, then truly awesome things can happen in organizations.  This is of course a two way street.  The bosses have to actually listen because there are TV cameras watching them listen.  The other side of it, however, is that the employees tell it straight–after all they are talking to a ‘nobody.’  If they knew they were talking to the boss, they wouldn’t tell the truth–or at least not all the truth.  They would be polite.  They would calculate what the boss wanted to hear, and then they would say it.  Even if they didn’t do that, they would be careful in their word choice and the real message wouldn’t necessarily get across.  It is the blend of the boss being put in a position where s/he sees what is happening at all levels of the organization, s/he has to listen and the employees telling it like it is that makes it happen.  Real change and effectiveness can happen with that blend. (And yeah, the bosses give the employees something at the end–but that is peripheral and entertaining, but not critical for making the changes happen.)

Applying the Lessons of Undercover Boss

If you are a manager, a leader, and/or an Executive, you need to:

  • Get to know what the people who work for you (and in the rest of your organization) do.  Repeatedly on  Undercover Boss the ‘old’ executive of the organization is challenged to keep up, to understand the process, to go fast enough.
  • Understand their challenges.  What are the impacts of your policies on how they do their work?  Again, repeatedly executives are confronted on Undercover Boss with the unintended consequences of their well-intentioned policy changes.  Bosses are confronted with the fact that employees have to cut short positive customer interactions to make productivity numbers or that a well-designed productivity tool is unusable by people who are color blind.  What have you done that has increased the difficulty of doing a job rather than improved both productivity and job quality?
  • How do they think of you and the other leaders in your organization.  How many times do people on the show talk about the “corporate clowns.”  Are you a clown or clueless in the eyes of your employees?  Rather than be defensive or mad about it, see it through their eyes.  What do you need to change that perception?
  • Know your people.  Over and over and over on the show, bosses ask personal questions of their employees and are touched and surprised by the answers.  I’m sure the show scripts some of the kinds of questions that the Executives ask, but in every show, the bosses are surprised at what their employees go through outside of work.  Many Executives resist, either consciously or unconscioulsy, getting close to their employees.  How can you make the “hard” decisions about what to do with people if you care about them?  Ask yourself the opposite question:  How do you motivate, inspire and lead people to higher performance if you don’t know and care about them?  If they don’t know and care about you? Work organizations are first and foremost human organizations.  Creating organizations where people care about each other, stand up for each other, and deliver or the whole, is the key to being a great Executive and boss.
  • Ideas come from all levels.  The most ridiculous idea that Executives develop over time is that they know better than others because they are at the top of the organization and have lots of experiences that got them there.  As the interactions on Undercover Boss show over and over, being at the top of an organization makes it more, rather than less, likely that you don’t know your market and customers well enough to have new ideas that can grow your organization.  Create channels for innovative ideas to move up and across the organization and fight to keep those channels open.
  • Being real gets you told.  It is extremely difficult to persuade employees to tell the truth about what they think and know about the organization.  Honest employees are doing you a favor.  Create situations that open and stimulate these conversations.  Be real.  Admit your own failings.  Appreciate feedback.  Show your employees that you will do something about what they tell you.  While the chosen employees on Undercover Boss get trips and vacations and scholarships, the biggest win is if the company creates a feedback loop between the employees and the leadership that identifies and addresses real issues for the company.  One of the best bosses I ever had regularly walked around the organization talking to people at all levels, but especially at the bottom.  He had relationships with people and they told him what they thought.  It didn’t happen day one, but over time we learned that not only was it safe to talk to him, but also that things got fixed when we did.

Build Undercover Relationships In Your Organization!

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