Friday, June 27, 2008

Improving the Quality of Leadership

Leadership is the genesis of everything that takes place within an organization. From idea to launch, growth to maturity, decline to demise, leadership affects everything that takes place within an organization. Nothing is more important to success, and yet many organizations suffer from poor leadership because nobody understands what it is and how to practice it.

How do we define leadership? It’s the process of influencing personnel, strategy, decisions and activities to fulfill an organization’s mission. To some, this definition implies that people in most organizations won’t have the opportunity to lead, but that’s a narrow interpretation. Everybody has an opportunity to influence business excellence at some level. The more people who practice leadership, the stronger an organization will become.

Leadership is composed of four basic elements:
* Clarity--possessing a clear vision for the future
* Communication--passing along that vision in an understandable way
* Credibility--being worthy of trust
* Character--demonstrating the inner qualities that facilitate true leadership

Let’s examine each of these components, see what they really mean on a practical level and figure out how to put them into practice.


The world offers countless variables and uncertainties. A leader can sort through these complications and point out a clear path to a company’s goals. As a result, people become less anxious about the future and more confident about where the organization is heading. Leaders can’t necessarily reduce uncertainty, but they can help others understand its aspects, which in turn will strengthen the organization to meet future challenges.

A leader’s clarity can reveal the following to an organization:
* Unique ways of securing resources
* Opportunities for success
* Threats and associated risks
* Insight into competitors’ actions
* Internal strengths and the best ways to leverage them
* Constructive evaluation of internal weaknesses
* Helpful alliances
* How events affect employees
* Objective analysis of internal performance

Clarity is an analytical process. Leaders who possess clarity can see relationships and solutions where others see only confusion. Granted, leaders often receive expert advice on various topics, but ultimately they’re the people who draw diverse information into a coherent whole. A leader’s clarity successfully drives the organization’s strategy.

The analytical strength required for clarity can be developed in much the same way that athletes perfect a skill. The requirements are the same for both: practice, hard work and discipline. Like athletes, leaders’ training programs never end. As long as they’re focused on providing clarity to their organizations, leaders must continually sharpen their analytical skills.

As a leader, how can you do this? Here are some practical steps:
* Avoid passive activities such as sitting in front of the television. Passive activities slow down brain activity and encourage analytical laziness.
* Read a wide range of material and avoid falling into ideological ruts. Leaders seek out books that don’t necessarily mirror their own thinking.
* Question pronouncements of fact, especially when they’re asserted by authority figures. Leaders verify facts for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Skepticism and curiosity are useful tools.
* Strive for a constant state of learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking formal classes, but make a point of cultivating new ideas and deepening your knowledge of old ones. This keeps your mind limber and strong.
* Stay physically fit. Fitness reduces stress and improves clarity. Mental fitness and physical fitness are closely related for most living creatures.
* Become an active listener. Simply listening to what people say can provide a great deal of clarity in itself. People who want to impress others talk often; leaders talk less and listen more.
* Pursue creative outlets of expression. Whether you enjoy oil painting or hedge trimming, be creative in your recreational activities. Such creativity will enhance your clarity during normal working hours.
* Embrace unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Learn to conquer your fear of the unknown. Leaders are masters of dissecting the unknown and making sense of it--and they don’t scare easily.

Get into the habit of analyzing facts from a unique perspective, drawing conclusions and making decisions. Don’t allow fear about the risks and challenges facing your organization to paralyze you. If a decision you make leads the company in the wrong direction, reverse course. “It’s common sense to take a method and try it,” observed President Franklin Roosevelt. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” These are wise words for all prospective leaders. As long as you can learn from your mistakes, they have value.


The best leaders are often known as great communicators. Communication is the vehicle by which a leader’s clarity is shared with the rest of the organization.
A leader communicates most effectively in person. Others are less likely to doubt their leader’s beliefs and commitments when he or she has the courage to voice them. Written policies, declarations, memos and e-mails can be effective but are best used as backups to a leader’s spoken words.

As with other aspects of leadership, communication skills can be learned. A number of distinct attributes characterize effective communication:
* It’s smooth, but spontaneous. A rehearsed speech often comes across as stiff and bureaucratic. Does this mean public addresses shouldn’t be rehearsed? No. In fact, leaders should continually practice and sharpen their communication skills, emphasizing a natural, free-flowing style.
* It’s appealing to each person. Leaders recognize that an organization consists of individuals. Everyone hearing the communication will inevitably analyze it in terms of how it relates to him or her personally. Thus, a leader helps each person understand why a course of action or decision is important.
* It’s convincing. Leaders must really believe in what they say and provide specific examples. The message then becomes personal, delivered directly from the heart. Everyone listening to the leader will understand why the message is relevant.
* It’s free of errors. Nobody’s perfect, but leaders in particular must get their facts straight before they speak. The communication should be grammatically correct, coherent and factual. A wise leader enlists the help of competent proofreaders and fact-checkers before communicating.
* It’s concise. A smart leader keeps his message streamlined. It’s worth noting that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, considered one of the most significant speeches in U.S. history, is fewer than 300 words long. Now that’s concise.

Some people never develop clarity, but communication skills can be mastered with practice. Study communicators whom you particularly admire. Note the attributes that make them great speakers. Which of their traits can you cultivate in your own communications? Overcome your resistance and take every opportunity to practice in front of groups.


Like beauty, credibility is in the eye of the beholder. One person might find a leader credible, while a different person won’t. Although neither determination is necessarily correct, both are legitimate because they’re perceived as such. Perceptions are facts--at least to the perceiver.

Leaders must acknowledge credibility’s capricious nature. Because no one is capable of universal approval, wise leaders will aim for a credible middle ground by appealing to a wide audience. Results and behavior both influence credibility.
Nothing builds credibility like positive results. Leaders who can demonstrate success inspire confidence and trust in others. Positive results particularly impress when they relate to an endeavor the organization is currently pursuing, but a leader can garner credibility from an almost limitless list: new products, gained market share, games won, goals scored, donations received, legislation passed, etc. In fact, successful leaders often move from one field to another--for example, a trusted business leader who wins an elected office. Even without political experience, business success lends credibility to the new endeavor.

Past results might get a leader in the door, but the ability to consistently achieve results sustains credibility. Leaders must take actions that produce positive results, and they must let everyone know about them. These announcements should be low-key, factual and generous in acknowledging others’ roles. The point is not to brag about achievements but to maintain credibility and prepare for continual positive results.

Leaders’ behavior is constantly scrutinized. Every action is analyzed for flaws and errors that cast doubt on their credibility. Although this isn’t particularly fair, it’s a fact leaders must understand and manage. They’re held to a higher standard than everybody else.

People have vastly different standards for what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Behavior that can damage credibility includes the following:
* Illegal activity. Sometimes even an unsubstantiated charge is enough to damage credibility.
* Sexual indiscretion. This includes extramarital sex, aggressive flirting, suggestive remarks and blatant interest in pornography.
* Recreational drug use
* Excessive alcohol consumption. Depending on the environment, even moderate consumption can harm credibility.
* Offensive or insensitive language. This includes dirty jokes, profanity, derogatory statements, insults and racist remarks.
* Self-serving decisions and actions
* Lying and spreading misinformation
* Inconsistent or unfair treatment of subordinates
* Indecisiveness
* Irreverent or sacrilegious actions
* Tattoos, body piercing or unusual hairstyles
* Frequent emotional outbursts
* Unorthodox hobbies
* Unusual viewpoints
* Flamboyant dress

Obviously, not all of these are equal in import. Some are legal issues, others moral or ethical, and some simply matters of personal choice in a free society. However, they can compromise credibility, depending upon the observer. Leaders must decide whether their behavior will harm their credibility. Some of the items listed are private issues, but keep in mind that they, too, can affect credibility. And credibility affects that most elusive of leadership qualities: character.


Character consists of those inner qualities that guide and motivate us. Strong character enables leaders to choose the right fights, make the right decisions and reach their goals. While credibility focuses outward on other people’s perceptions, character concerns internal qualities that only the leader and his or her closest confidants can really perceive.

Like other elements of leadership, character can be studied and improved. It’s the most difficult element to change, though, because much of it is hardwired into a person’s psyche. Many leaders act upon character qualities without realizing it. Character resides in the mind and heart, operating on both conscious and subconscious levels.

Character revolves around three basic components: leading for the right reasons, acceptance of responsibility and humility. Let’s look at each of these and explore how someone might use them to develop their own leadership abilities.
People have a wide range of reasons for wanting to lead, and not all them are good. The best leaders want to lead because they believe they can raise their companies to new levels of success and in doing so, benefit everyone in the organization.

Exceptional leadership focuses outward and concerns what the leader can do for the organization. Of course, leaders are often well-compensated for their efforts, but the compensation isn’t why they wish to lead. They’re dedicated to excellence and improving the lives of those around them. Does this sound contrary to the way many leaders behave? Unfortunately, it is.

Consider some of the right reasons for leading. These include:
* Carrying out a positive vision for the organization
* Reducing organizational risk
* Ensuring long-term survival
* Making improvements
* Outperforming competitors
* Removing obstacles
* Enhancing clarity and creativity
* Helping the organization’s mission evolve as the company grows
* Holding oneself to unimpeachable standards
* Challenging oneself to be the best
* Providing a positive future for one’s family
* Being a role model

Some of the wrong reasons to lead include:
* Stroking one’s ego
* Impressing people
* Getting rich
* Settling scores and acting on grudges
* Fulfilling a sense of entitlement
* Elevating one’s social status
* Enjoying special perks and privileges
* Benefiting a subset within the organization
* Helping friends at the organization’s expense
* Imposing extreme ideologies contrary to the organization’s mission
* Attracting members of the opposite sex

Only the leader truly knows the reasons for his or her desire to lead. Others can speculate, but all leaders must look within and honestly appraise their motivations. If they fall into the “wrong reasons” column, leaders must seriously evaluate their fitness to lead. When these negative motivations manifest themselves in a leader’s behavior, credibility is damaged.


No greater responsibility exists than leading others. Many people rely on leaders and their ability to assess situations fairly and accurately. Successful leaders understand and accept this responsibility. It might sometimes require them to make decisions that don’t necessarily benefit themselves but that will benefit the organization. True leaders are no strangers to self-sacrifice.

An eye-opening exercise for leaders is to list all the people who depend on them: employees and their families, suppliers, customers, stakeholders and others. Any leader who isn’t humbled by this exercise hasn’t fully grasped the depth of the responsibility involved.

Leaders are responsible not only for the people they lead but also for their own actions. Many leaders ignore this responsibility, however, and become detached from the ethics of their own actions. In their minds, they’re bigger than life. Their actions become less important than pursuing their objectives. Failing to act ethically eventually derails them. For this reason, humility is another attribute that leaders must cultivate.


Leaders are not perfect. Even the best have flaws like everybody else. This is a fact, though you wouldn’t know it from the way many leaders act. They’re showered with money, perks, privileges and praise, and they begin to think they must indeed be perfect to merit all those rewards. This means trouble.

All leaders must have a healthy confidence in their abilities, balanced by a sober understanding of their own failings. A leader’s strengths won’t shine every day of the week. Leaders are only humans, not deities; they’re stuck down here with the rest of us.

Leaders who lack humility will exhibit a number of dangerous traits, such as:
* Denying facts that run counter to their policies
* Reluctance to take advice
* Selective data interpretation
* Exhibiting anger toward views that challenge their own
* Unwillingness to change course, even when evidence suggests the need to do so
* Cultivating sycophants
* Discouraging risk-taking and the entrepreneurial spirit
* Willingness to lie and deceive in order to bolster their positions
* Inability to laugh at themselves
* Lack of accountability for their own behavior

Leaders who lack humility will eventually destroy their organizations. In the short term, they might propel their companies to outrageous heights, but inevitably hubris will plunge them, and those counting on them, into chaos. Mark Mendenhall of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga refers to this phenomenon as the “Icarus paradox,” after the figure in Greek mythology whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. All leaders must fear the sun’s effects on their own wax wings.

Hubris is a poison that spreads from the leader and infects the entire organization. Smart, independent-thinking people defect, leaving only “true believers” or those too tired to fight. The healthy dynamic of dialogue and debate disappears, and the organization becomes stilted and inflexible.

Every leader must guard against this. How? Luckily, the same activities that breed clarity also tend to generate humility. True wisdom, which is the pinnacle of clarity, recognizes how little one really knows. When a leader begins to perceive this, humility follows naturally.

The leader’s journey

Leadership represents a lifelong journey. It must be pursued with discipline, persistence and great personal strength. Mastering clarity, communication, credibility and character are the necessary first steps. Integrate these qualities into the activities you face daily. If you consistently practice them, you’ll grow into a true leader, and your organization will achieve many of its goals as a result.

No comments: