Understanding Leadership

As I write about understanding the leader’s call, it occurred to me that I should highlight an article that I had published in SaskBusiness this past January, “What Defines Leadership; It begins with personal character“(PDF).

What Defines Leadership: It begins with personal character

“Our business leaders must stop seeking to be the best in the world, and start being the best for the world.”
– Richard Barrett, The New Leadership Paradigm

It may initially sound noble to desire to be the best in the world at what we do. We all know that it takes thousands of hours to master a skill, to hone a craft into a finely tuned art form. To rise to levels of excellence in any vocation, one must be dedicated and diligent in discipline and practice.

To be a great golfer, one must move beyond hitting every shot once in a while, to only missing a shot once in a while. To be a great hockey player, one must understand the strategy of the game, have mastery of personal skill and learn how to move to where the puck is going to be, as Wayne Gretzky puts it.

To be a master of business, one must know the balance sheet, and its ever-challenging dance with cash flow, income and expense. One must also have a firm understanding of product life cycles, markets and evolving consumer demand, but are these enough to achieve excellence and sustainability?

After conducting fourteen formal studies and more than a thousand interviews, directly observing dozens of executives in action and compiling numerous surveys, I am completely convinced that most organizations lack the leadership they need. This is not to say that untalented, unenergetic people occupy management positions…the central issue here is not one of style. It is about core behavior on the job, not surface detail and tactics, a core that changes little over time, across different cultures, or in different industries.
– John P. Kotter, Harvard Business School

In my last few articles, I have been speaking about culture being the product of leadership behavior. Let me now suggest that “core behavior” (leadership behavior) is the product of personal character.

Harvard Business Review once reported that “Authentic leaders…practice the values and principles, sometimes at substantial risk to themselves. They are careful to balance their motivations, so that they are driven by these internal values as much as by a desire for external rewards or recognition.” 1

There are many examples over the past few years at all levels of leaders who have imploded. You may even know a few personally. When we think of leadership failure, Enron comes quickly to mind. We may also think of the US banking sector, or possibly individuals like Conrad Black.

I wonder what pathway these individuals were on as they travelled toward implosion. Did they suddenly veer off the superstar highway into the ditch, or was this a gradual erosion of character through power? What made them become so selfish that they killed the veritable golden goose for “just one more egg”? However, before we get too comfortable from our seats in the balcony, we all need to take a look at the values that govern our personal decision-making.

Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.
– Joseph C. Rost

Leadership is not defined by the position we hold. We all lead others, for someone is always watching us. We lead people to make decisions in or out of alignment with what we are doing by what they observe in us.

Leadership is also not defined by how many are following; everyone is a leader at the core, for each of us must lead ourselves. In a way then, we lead each other within “an influence relationship.” Some are leaders and some are active followers. An active follower is a leader as well. If we are all leaders of some magnitude, then all of us must examine our values for sustainability and impact.

What are the solid character traits that we need to develop over this next year? What path will we choose to grow these traits so that we can be our best for all of those who are part of this influence relationship?

I don’t always understand my own heart in relation to the personal values I breach from time to time. I do know that not one of us is perfect, and to expect perfect behavior of anyone is lunacy. However, with courage, character owns its responsibility. Greed and fear were never solid character qualities…courage (the ability to act rightly in the face of discouragement) always will be.

Anyone can start being the best for the world. We start by leading our self, our human being, in the development of solid personal character. This is the challenge before me in the coming year…and it is the invitation that I am placing before you.

1 George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A., and Mayer, D. (2007). “Discovering your authentic leadership”. Harvard Business Review