Talk about leadership is everywhere these days. No wonder. In the uncertain times we live in, people want to know what to do. But what is leadership? Of the many examples on display, who provides a model to emulate? (Please don’t say Trump.)
All too often it seems to be the kind of leader who directs, confronts, demands attention and generally makes a big noise who is taken to be the most effective. Unfortunately, when this kind of leader moves on those left behind usually find they have a mess to clean up.
Less noticed, but far more effective, are those leaders who understand that their job is to listen, persuade and create an environment in which people can make good decisions as they work together for a common goal.
As leadership guru Simon Sinek says: Once everyone in the organisation can answer for themselves the why, what and how questions anything is possible.
This is the model I have tried to follow (I emphasise try) in my leadership positions over many decades, most recently as vice-chancellor of Massey University.
The key lessons I have learned can be distilled into 10 plus one simple points. They are simple. But in my experience they are not so easy to put into practice.
Leading is made up of four elements: ideas, resources, administration and persistence. These elements go together. Try one without the others and leading is like driving a car with one or more flat tyres.
The ability to communicate clearly and in every medium is crucial if people are to understand why they are being asked to do something and what they are expected to do. Communication does not mean one-way traffic. It means everyone having a say and feeling that they are part of the final decision.
3. Get the best people
Choosing the right people for the right jobs is one of the most difficult tasks for any leader. Get the right people when it is possible but, when they are not around, be prepared to put time and effort into people who have what it takes to grow.
Leaders cannot and should not try to do everything themselves. They exist to create the space for others to do great things. Delegation allows the leader to get on with their job while demonstrating trust. Real delegation means giving someone a job to do that they, not the leader, can take credit for.
There is always too much to do. Having clearly stated goals, actions to be carried out in the year ahead and a diary that organises what time is available to best effect is essential. If a leader has the luxury of an assistant, this is a partnership that can make all the difference to success or failure.
6. Be visible
Leaders need to be seen. And they should be worth looking at. In other words, they should look like they fit the job they are in. Acting or dressing inappropriately undermines whatever the leader is trying to do. A touch of charisma can be helpful and treating people with respect is always a good thing to do.
7. Make decisions
When decisions are delayed, work cannot be done and uncertainty arises. Better to make a decision and clean up the (hopefully) small mistakes that occur than to paralyse the whole organisation.
8. Say thanks
We live in a world where people need and want feedback on their performance. At times that feedback will be negative but looking for opportunities to say thanks, whether big or small, is a much better way to ensure people are enthusiastic about their work.
9. Don’t hold grudges
Conflict is inevitable and the tendency to nurture a grudge might seem equally inevitable. It should not be. Grudges take time and energy away from the real work. They also create enemies.
10. Use power
Leaders must never forget that they were hired to make things happen. The nine points above may appear to be all about being nice to people. At one level they are. Most goals can be achieved by creating a positive environment. Doing this is an exercise in power 21st-century style. But there will be occasions when leaders will be challenged and they will have to go into battle. Make sure everyone knows you are prepared to do just that if the need arises. No one follows a wimp.
That is 10 points so here is the plus one: Know when to leave. Some leaders do not stay long enough. They create a fuss then move on proud of being a “change agent.” They do not stay long enough to live with the successes and mistakes.
Other leaders stay too long. They enjoy their successes, ignore failures and get comfortable. This serves neither the leader nor the organisation.
It is not easy to know when it is time to go but it is worth trying to find out.
President Obama likened leadership to a relay race with the baton being passed from person to person. Knowing when it is your turn or when it is time to pass the baton on is everything.
Steve Maharey is a former Labour cabinet minister and vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Listen to Andrew Patterson interview leadership guru Simon Sinek on Sunday Business here.
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