No More Leadership Checklists

This is not another article about the best leadership style or a list of traits that if you follow will make you some great leader. Rather, I would like to challenge the constructs of what we, as a society, define as leadership. Leadership is not a position, title or end game; nor is it defined by good or virtuous deeds.

Leadership is a mental process, framework and lens by which to view the world, ideas, values, beliefs, opportunities and threats. This is what it means to have ‘vision’ and its an ability, not a trait. The action of leading is an everyday exchange and acting on of these ideas, values and beliefs. Leaders are not born, they are made. They are forged by their environment, marked by their intellect and shaped by their decisions. Leaders can be found in all levels of an organization, not only the top. People are not leaders because of their positions. A promotion to a senior or executive role does not bestow leadership ability.

Ok. What does this mean for business? How do companies identify the next age of leaders? What do we do with these individuals once we have identified them?

‘Begin with the end in mind’ (Stephen Covey). Companies in their different industries with their different objectives require different styles of leadership. The head of a not-for-profit is not expected to act the same as the head of a hedge fund. Your company’s customer value proposition, differentiating capabilities and strategy will determine what type of leaders your business requires. No leader can read minds or see the future so be clear on these items before trying to find leaders that are right for your company. Then ask, “Leadership for what purpose?” Equally important, if your company changes direction or strategy, don’t be afraid to change leaders.

There is no perfect leader, no one individual is going to come with all the qualities you want in a leader, and no two leaders will ever be the same. Nor should you want this. You want to mold talent to some degree and diversity breeds innovative solutions to uncommon problems. Instead of some status quo definition of what a leader is, focus on shared beliefs. If your leaders aren’t operating from a set of shared beliefs, they will have different definitions of success resulting in competing commitments. In an effort to maintain compliance and commitment from leaders, companies have years long succession plans but all these do is breed numbness, stagnation, conformity and mediocrity. Gautam Mukunda had a theory that looked at existing leaders as being “filtered” versus “unfiltered”. “Filtered” leaders follow the usual progression and politics to reach their positions. You can predict the behaviors of these people. “Unfiltered” leaders have more unorthodox means by which they reach their roles. These are the visionaries and disruptors. If you’re looking to maintain, go with your tried and true “filtered” leaders. I promise you your competitors will see them coming. If you want to be innovators and change makers in your industries, find those “unfiltered” individuals inside, and outside, your organization. You can always design teams to fill competency gaps and develop programs (i.e. ‘filtering processes’) to ensure alignment with your company’s vision, mission and values.

‘Leaders aren’t responsible for results. Leaders are responsible for people who are responsible for results’ (Simon Sinek). Once we have accepted this as the baseline definition of what a leader’s job is, then we can identify individuals within the organization who have the potential to be leaders by looking at those who interact exceptionally well with others. We need not a checklist of traits because a lower position may not require the same traits as a higher position. This does not mean that the person in the lower position does not have those qualities, only that the position does not require they exhibit them. A checklist, therefore, would only offer false negative results. A more accurate assessment of leadership would be to examine relationships between individuals. Look at who is giving their peers praise and encouragement. Look at who is being sought out for information, expertise and advice. Look at who stands up for their fellow peers and for what they believe to be right. Look at who bridges groups and connects people. Look at who is offering solutions to problems and resolving conflicts. Look at who is teaching their peers about the latest market trends. These individuals have the trust of those around them to steer them in the right direction.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ (African Proverb). For sake of argument, the village is your leadership team and the child is your business. No one individual ever single handedly started a company or movement. In addition to a leader, there are advisors (i.e. board of directors, experts and specialists) and followers (i.e. workforce and customers). The current use of “leadership team” to identify the executive team is not always an accurate representation of all individuals on said team. I would challenge organizations to create actual leadership teams that consist of committees of individuals who embody the qualities and behaviors their company strategy requires of its leaders. Have the group be a mix of people from different locations, departments and levels of the organization.

Once you have outlined your strategy, identified your leaders, developed their capabilities, and brought them into the fold; you need to step back and let them perform. Provide opportunities for them to unleash their potential, evaluate and improve their performance, repeat. You will need to be comfortable with some measure of failure because failure is a possibility with any leader, executive or manager. A good idea is give these people the same breadth, boundaries and budgets you would give an R&D team.

Hason Greene

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.