LEADERSHIP IS A SUBTLE ART

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism.

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner's Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner’s Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons


I generally try to keep out of the academics’ desire to differentiate between leadership and management (see “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011), as I believe that the two have become mostly inseparable in real life, both being areas of skill needed by everyone in an executive role.

However, I am increasingly asked to give my definition of what constitutes good leadership, so with the caveat that I still believe that great management skills are an integral part of successful leadership and vice versa, I do believe that there are some measurable key elements that when taken together constitute skilled leadership.

The best general and concise dictionary definition of leadership I have found is that it represents “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

Here are my three elements of leadership that I feel are needed, and that I would use to expand this definition:

Inspiration … Many people tend to equate the ability to inspire people mainly with charisma, verbal skills and extroversion, and while I agree that these can help, I do not believe that they are necessarily the only criteria. There is no question that a good leader needs to be able to paint a compelling vision that people want to be a part of, and thus want to contribute to, its attainment. However, this may in many circumstances need visible expertise in the key individual elements of the “dream”, such as product (Apple) or go to market (eBay), even more than the unbridled enthusiasm and oratorical skills of someone like a Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. Steve Ballmer going crazy on stage when he starts his presentation to the Microsoft developers may, to many of us, look like a man who has lost the plot, but would have been seen as inspirational and enthusiastic to his audience of software developers. (see video). Compare this with the quite confidence of Lee Kwan Yew, founding father of Singapore, who I consider to be one of the great inspirational leaders of our time (see Lee Kwan Yew’s National Day Rally speech 1984). Style may vary, and will depend on the leader as well as the makeup of the team, as inspiring a group of sales people will require a different approach than inspiring a team of techies. However there are some common elements in good inspirational leadership such as setting stretch goals, growing and developing team members, encouraging innovation and creativity, being even-handed with people and creating a culture of high integrity and honesty.

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Collaboration … Successful leadership is never about going it alone, as by definition, it requires people who are keen to follow. Getting team buy-in and commitment is critical, and the starting point needs to be the right of the key team members to be an integral part in the development of the vision, direction and actions needed to achieve the goal. Successful collaboration requires skilled “social intelligence” in the leader, being the ability to have a basic understanding of people and having the skills needed to interact with them. This has been defined as having the 5 key dimensions of presence (external image or sense of self as perceived by others), clarity (using language effectively while persuading with ideas), awareness (ability to read situations), authenticity (behaviour that shows honesty and integrity) and empathy (ability to connect with others which encourages co-operation). Ultimately every leader must be able to lead by example.

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Concentration … Good leaders have the ability to focus their time and energy on what is critical, and have the discipline to be able to either disregard or delegate everything else. Being a “control freak” that gets involved in every decision in every piece of the business will generally only work for a short time, a small group or a simple task. The 26th President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had it right when he said “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Those in Leadership roles today are under growing pressures of speed, complexity, changing markets and competition, financial pressures and the need to do more with less. It is critical for success not only of the individual executive, but of the entire organisation that those in leadership positions have an ability to focus on what is critically needed for success. By this definition (and I believe few others, see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem ?” posted April 23, 2012) Steve Jobs was exactly the leader needed to bring Apple back from the brink of disaster by focussing on “gadgets” based on his own skill-set, and on his belief and understanding that the market was ready for this. Focus involves taking “calculated risks”, and this is a key element of successful leadership at all times, as it is of any successful business. Ultimately the ability to focus on driving the execution of a widely committed strategy is an integral part of success.

I am sure there are many others elements needed in a good leader, but I do see these three to be common in successful leaders, whether in sports, business or politics, remembering that “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings”. Peter Drucker (1909-2005), management guru.

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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3 Responses to LEADERSHIP IS A SUBTLE ART

  1. John Du Bois says:

    Thanks Les

  2. Thank you very much for your great explanation.

    Why don’t we expect a good accountant to be a good sales guy? But why do we expect a good manager to be a good leader and vice versa? Organizations and division of labor are meant to make strengths effective and weaknesses irrelevant. I have very seldom seen a person being good in (e.g.) organizing processes and catching opportunities – but both are needed in organizations. Why can’t we divide the labor of an executive into leadership and management and stop this excessive demand on executives that burns them out?

    • leshayman says:

      Hermann, division of labour happens with the senior manager and his team at all times, and that means that they all need to be leader/manager at different times. In the team sometimes the CFO takes the lead and sometimes it is the head of engineering and so on, situation dependant. It is the same when they move down to their own teams and so on down the line. But trying to split these responsibilities up so some individuals are designated as leaders and others are non-leader managers doesn’t work. I would always have rather followed an inspirational leader who could also manage well his people and business than a great speaker who was disorganised, or an introverted process specialist.
      As well, I have found that burnout happens most when people try to do it all on their own than rather than building a skilled team around them that together can lead/manage. Control freaks burn out faster than collaborative executives. Les

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