Many times, when facilitating discussions around leadership, I will ask participants to “brainstorm” a list of attributes for leaders. The list is always long with great characteristics for all manner of leaders. The chances of finding a person with all or even a significant number of the attributes is nil. Yet, it seems as though we expect our leaders to be “super heroes” in their character traits. We are setting them up for failure and ourselves for disappointment.
It’s interesting that in discussions with teams that they “intellectually get” that no one person can embody the ideal leader. Yet they also readily admit to holding their leaders to very high standards. So the question that arises in my mind is when do we cross the line from being reasonable to being unreasonable in our expectations? I don’t think there is a bright line here, it’s definitely a gradient. I can only speak for myself on this issue, and here are my thoughts.
I expect leaders to be mature adults with some reasonable experience in life and business. But that is not just a trait for our leaders, it is what I would want for all human beings, all coworkers. So beyond that, I can and should expect our leaders first to be ethical in their dealings and then next to be willing to learn from her own and other’s mistakes. There of course must be some basic competence when it comes to managing the business. And a leader must be dedicated to creating other leaders. I think that most of the other attributes we list in that very long list, support these four “basic” attributes. Let’s take them one at a time.
I get that ethics is a slippery discussion here. Ethics and values are culturally based. And I’m definitely not talking about doggedly hanging on to some principle or value, although at times it may appear that such is the case. I am talking about making sure that a leader is aware of her or his “fundamental organizing principles” and guides the organization in a way that is consistent with those principles in every situation. The proof of the pudding is when a necessary decision is going to cause a violation of one principle in order to be consistent with another – that is, the grey area we often speak of. These ethical “dilemmas” are frequently discussed in ethics courses, philosophy and leadership training, so I won’t go over them here. What I look for is that the leader is clear that there is a dilemma, can clearly state her thought process in coming to a decision on actions taken or proposed, is transparent in sharing that process with others and holds herself accountable for the results of the decision.
Willing to Learn
Willing to learn also means willing to admit that we were wrong (or right!) about one thing or another. By embracing this fact, daily, we can’t help but to be humble and open to the ideas that others may have about our situation, direction or proposed solutions to problems. This trait is most important when it comes to learning about our own leadership style and competence. We should not let our own ego put us on the pedestal any more than we should allow others to put us there. When we think we have all the answers, we cannot possibly learn. Being willing to learn also means being data driven rather than simply going on intuition or going with conventional wisdom. Willing to learn means to correct our assumptions, change our processes, modify our beliefs and from time to time, update our values. In short, we must be willing to change course as we receive new information.
Perhaps a better term is appropriate experience. Before we go too far down this road, I want to make it clear that in my mind there must be a balance between seeking experience and making sure others get the experience they need (more on that below.) It is of course highly risky to take a person relatively inexperienced in running a large multinational company and putting him or her in charge of that operation. It is less risky to take a person with that experience in one industry and ask them to lead a similarly complex organization in another – here I’m thinking of Alan Mullaly leaving Boeing to lead Ford. The challenge for companies is to find the person with specific competencies that are needed at different times in the company’s life. It is frequently noted that start-up companies need different talents than when the company has matured and become larger in size with all the issues around managing employees, etc.
Here, in my mind, is one of the most significant traits of a good leader – being willing to develop new leaders. Other than a founder wanting to keep a business as a small “life-style business,” the major reason for businesses to stall at a specific size is that there are not enough leaders to make enough decisions to keep the company growing and moving forward. If only one person in the company can make the final decision about opportunities, issues and processes, then the business cannot grow beyond that person’s capacity to decide. If I, as the leader of the company, can only make about a million dollars worth of decisions in any given year, then by definition the company will stay at about a million dollars. We must scale the decision making capacity of the company if we are to have the company grow. That means developing leaders and sharing control. Perhaps the most difficult thing for leaders who are used to being “in control” in the leader-follower hierarchy in which we have been raised is to recognize that to be in control we must give control to others. Control isn’t control until you give it away! To thrive we must create leadership at every level of our organization. Giving control to others creates leaders. Keeping control to yourself creates followers – and dooms you to having no life since everything has to “go through you.”
You might pick other attributes as being fundamental and that’s fine. The key is to make sure we recognize that none of us is going to be perfect. Let’s not set everyone up for failure and disappointment by expecting superheros for leaders. But let’s DO insist on holding leaders – ourselves included – accountable for their decisions and actions. Let’s allow them to learn from experience as long as mistakes are not repeated. Let’s make sure leaders and the organization are data driven. Let’s create a culture where leaders are willing to revise or throw out beliefs based on data while always acting in accordance with the stated values of the organization.
What are you doing to develop leaders in your organization? Do you have a clear set of values that everyone knows and understands? What are you doing to give control to others? What decisions will you keep for yourself?