I’ve had the privilege to work with some great leaders over my career – what makes them great is they create a context and environment that ignites everyone to be at their best in pursuit of their needs and those and those of the organisation.
Those leaders, and my own leadership experience, have helped me identify some leadership principles:
Always create a meaningful and ambitious context: As humans we have a really high chance of being at our best in a safe, meaningful, ambitious context and culture. Great leaders understand this, and are always communicating ‘why’ the organisation exists in a way that makes sense and energises people to grow and achieve big goals.
Be a great Goodwill Trader: If everyone in the organisation worked to rule, then the organisation couldn’t function – so goodwill is the lifeblood of most organisations. The best leaders know this goodwill is the gift of their people and know how important it is to build and nurture it – even when difficult things have to be done.
Recruit for Culture and Energy-fit over Capability: The best leaders know that culture is the heartbeat of the business. When it is set appropriately, then sustainable performance is enabled. It is generally much more difficult to change a person, behaviourally and attitudinally, to fit a culture than it is to build their competence to fit their role.
Care about people enough to fire them: If we have kids we care enough about them to sometimes make decisions that we know will deeply upset them – however we do this with care (or love) or else we would harm them. Care means really caring at a human level even when someone is underperforming or behaving badly. The ability to care deeply and confront strongly, at the same time, is well developed in the best leaders.
Be a ‘Time Giver’ rather than a ‘Time Taker’: Time is one of the few equal commodities in organisations. Great leaders know that giving their time in person, to question, listen, support as well as challenge, is what makes the biggest impact. Far too many people in organisations feel their time is robbed at meetings, events and outside of work and they viscerally object to it. That being said, they are most often willing to give of their time freely if the context is right.
Understand what Motivation is: We are motivated when our changing needs are met in balance and we are doing things that energise us. Great leaders understand this and seek to understand this and support people in their motivation as far as is practical.
Coach for Leadership and Performance: Directing people is required when time is short, risks are high and competency is low. Over-directing is lazy leadership that frustrates well-educated and ambitious people who like autonomy – a growing cohort in our workforce. Enabling people requires the skill of coaching, i.e. connecting people more deeply with their own resources to create breakthrough thinking, actions and results – and ultimately leadership.
Know that it’s Not about You: We are leaders when we care about what is around us even at a cost to ourselves. When we think of the great leaders like Nelson Mandela and the great many unsung leaders out there, they probably have one thing in common – they had a cause and were driven and selfless in pursuit of it.
Wired for Curiosity: As Fritz Perls put it, ‘we live in a house of mirrors and think we are looking out the windows’. The best of leaders know that if they listen to themselves too much they will lose credibility and create catastrophic blind spots. They are personally curious, reflective and always seeking feedback and don’t easily take ‘yes’ for an answer.
Ruthlessly focused: As well as being healthily agile, they are relentlessly focused and have the personal discipline to stay the course when the going gets tough, as it always does. Not only do they see and start something but they have the energy and commitment to sustain the effort.
Treat the journey as a Puzzle: Mike Tyson said ‘everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth’. The best leaders understand this will happen and see the journey as a puzzle that has to be worked out every day. They have a growth mindset and are pragmatic decision makers. They see failure as information, then learn, change fast and move on. As Joseph Campbell put it ‘where you stumble, there lies your treasure’.
Focus on Rhythm before Pace: The organisation and its teams have to have a ‘rhythm’ to get moving, much in the way a rowing team would. That rhythm, or way of working, has to be uncovered before the power is applied and the pace is maximised. The best leaders invest time and effort into supporting teams to connect strongly, find their rhythm, and then build their pace to sustainably achieve results.
Take personal responsibility and demand the same from everyone: They expect to be held personally accountable by everyone around them, no matter what rank, and they demand the same from them too. They hold a healthy tension between humility, self-reflection, ambition and demand of others. They let success shine on the team and take the first line of responsibility when failure and threat arises.
Take responsibility for how they ‘show-up’ all the time: The best of leaders are energy givers, not energy takers. They take responsibility for their energy by being conscious of it and also by investing in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves. They are authentic and open, know who they are and have come to terms with it. They are safe to be around – safe enough for everyone to be themselves around them, at their best in pursuit of their needs and those of the organisation.
Play their biggest Role: The best leaders are always challenging themselves to play the role that only they can play that makes the biggest positive difference to the organisation – rather than getting unnecessarily caught in the weeds of the day-to-day of the business.