Who do you need to be as a leader?
What attributes do great leaders have that you can have, too?
(Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series.)
My last two columns have addressed what CEOs and other senior leaders need to know and what they need to do. But who do you need to be? Here is a excerpted section from my book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be.”
I have been fortunate to work with some great leaders, and over the years have identified that they all had some common capabilities. While they all had aptitude for business and were intelligent, they all learned these common capabilities somewhere in their career.
These are what I believe to be the mantras of successful leadership.
Mantra # 1: Successful Executives Are Not Nice!
From the minute we engage with other humans (and even pets!) our parents tell us, “Be nice!” This is intended to be a catchall for eliminating behaviors like hitting, screaming, crying, or anything that makes the other people in the sandbox feel bad.
As we get older, we’re rewarded for being nice. When my kids were in elementary school, their teachers frequently complimented them for being nice, as in, “He hasn’t turned in any of his homework and has failed the past three tests, but he’s such a nice boy!”
As adults, we continue to be rewarded for being nice. My wife is nice. When someone knocks on the door trying to sell magazine subscriptions or cookies, or even trim our trees, she happily has a meaningful conversation with whoever interrupted dinnertime.
Practically, there isn’t much harm in this behavior. The worst-case scenario is a nominal loss of time and too many Girl Scout cookies in the pantry. However, when we lead and manage others, being nice isn’t always the most effective approach.
There’s a substantial difference between being nice and being kind. Nice is born out of fear, and kind is born out of love. The fear of not being liked, or fear of conflict, prevents us from speaking the truth. But if we are kind, we will overcome that fear. Most of the time, you are willing to tell someone you love that they are making a big mistake, even at the risk of offending them or hurting their feelings.
Now let’s apply this nice versus kind behavior to the work environment. Nice managers will always find something to compliment. Kind managers will tell you what you need to know to succeed, even when the message is that your current practices are screwing things up. Nice leaders don’t want anyone to feel bad, but when they stand in the middle of the road, they end up getting hit by traffic going both ways. Not only do they fail to protect people’s feelings, they end up losing a lot more than just the smile on their face.
Mantra # 2: Visibility and Volume: Great Leaders are Seen and Heard
CEOs often fall into the trap of believing that if they say something once, or send out a memo, it will happen; like Captain Picard of Star Trek’s Enterprise when he said, “Make it so!” in his deep baritone voice. Sorry, but that dog don’t hunt! It takes so much more.
If a CEO has one key role, it is the keeper of the strategy—but more on that later. For our purposes here, just know that in order to execute that strategy, leaders must be visible and they must be excellent communicators. That doesn’t mean that you must have a voice like Nat King Cole, the charisma of Bill Clinton or the word choice of Ernest Hemmingway. However, it does mean that you must maintain the ability to deliver compelling messages of strategic importance and carry the persistence to stay on task and in the trenches.
Think of the great leaders that you admire. They all have different styles. Some may be downright goofy, but they probably all have the ability to get the message across in a way that galvanizes action. Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King are as different as night and day, but they are all leaders who had the ability to get people to follow them through their use of language and their ability to be both seen and heard.
But how? My opinion is that great leaders are both seen and heard through the manner in which they communicate. These communication skills are fundamental, if not imperative, to the message you send and the medium through which you send it. If we are going to build great leaders, we are going to have to first create fantastic communicators. Through speech, writing, and any other way leaders offer the “message,” the goal has got to be to make it clear, precise, strategized, and fundamentally aligned with the company’s purpose.
Communication skills can be learned. If you are going to be an effective leader, communicating in a compelling fashion should be near the top of your list for personal development. The content (i.e. vision and strategy) is critical as well, or you’ll be—as they say in Texas—all hat and no cattle. To state the obvious, if you do not have the ability to get people to follow you, you’ll never lead effectively. And if your followers don’t know what you want, they wont know in which direction to travel.
Real Lesson: If you don’t communicate effectively, get some training and put some effort into it! You must be visible (which in today’s world can involve technology), you must stay on message, and you must say it forcefully.
These are the first two of seven mantras. Next week: Two more!