Warren Bennis is the grandfather of leadership thinking, and in his classic book On Becoming A Leader, he makes it clear that the core of leadership is about a few very important things.
It’s about knowing who you are as a person, including your strengths, weaknesses, and knowing what you want to accomplish.
It’s also about knowing the world around you, and how to use that understanding to accomplish your goals through other people.
As Bennis points out, leadership is a never-ending dance between those things, and the process of getting better at it with each passing day.
Here are some things that will help you as you transition from being an individual performer to a leader of people.
Why Leadership Is Critical
First, let’s take a moment to consider why leadership is so important, and why being a great one matters.
Leaders are important for three reasons.
First, the success or failure of every organization depends on the level of leadership at the top.
Second, we live in turbulent times (which is even truer today than when this book was written), and leaders are the ones who chart the course through stormy waters.
And third, leaders are needed to restore integrity in all of our institutions – business and otherwise.
Ten Principles For Leaders
To get us started, here are ten timeless leadership principles that will help you hit the ground running, and keep going when times get tough.
1. Manage the dream. Your job as a leader is to communicate the vision of your company so clearly that people want to come work for you, and ultimately give their hearts and minds to the cause.
2. Embrace error. Any vision worth accomplishing will involve a lot of trial and error. Your job as a leader is to encourage risk taking so long as it doesn’t “knock you out of the game.” The bigger risk is to do nothing.
3. Encourage reflective back talk. Have people in your life who will tell you the truth. As a leader, you’ll almost always get a filtered version of it from your direct reports.
4. Encourage dissent. Surround yourself with people who will challenge your thinking. Your initial ideas will often be off the mark in some crucial way – open communication among your team can help you find the right answer, faster.
5. Display optimism, faith and hope. In times of trouble, your team will look to you for how they should respond. As a leader, your emotions are contagious.
6. Expect the best from your people. You’ll often see more potential in your people than they see in themselves. The best people thrive when you show you trust them to take on difficult challenges that will stretch their abilities.
7. Develop a sense of touch. One of the most important skills effective leaders have is the ability to figure out where the organization needs to go based on the external environment. Finding a compelling place for you and your team in the future is critical.
8. Take the long view. While the short-term is important, the long-term is perhaps even more important.
9. Maintain stakeholder symmetry. There are a number of stakeholder groups you’ll need to balance – some internal, and some external. Never let the balance get too far out of whack.
10. Create strategic alliances and partnerships. The smartest and most effective leaders don’t try to go it alone – externally along with internally. Finding partners who see the same future as you become powerful allies in making it happen.
Understanding the Basics
Now that we’ve got the crash course out of the way, let’s start from the beginning and discuss the building blocks that lead up to those principles.
The first thing to understand is that there is no prototypical leader – they come in all shapes and sizes, and one is not necessarily better than another.
However, effective leaders do share some common DNA:
– Guiding vision. The best leaders are crystal clear on what they want to accomplish in their personal and professional lives.
– Passion. Leaders are passionate about what they do – it’s impossible to grind it out for long if you don’t.
– Integrity. Leaders display integrity in three ways. First, they know themselves – their strengths and weaknesses, and why they do what they do. Second, they deploy candor regularly. And third, they display maturity by learning by following and serving their team.
– Curiosity and daring. Great leaders are great learners. They learn from thought leaders, but also from the people around them and success and failures of the team.
– Trust. Out of all the leadership qualities, this is the only one that can’t be acquired – it has to be earned. Take care of the core DNA of a leader and you’ll be well on your way to getting it.
Understanding yourself isn’t something that magically happens one day when you roll out of bed. It is a lifelong journey of experience and reflection.
There are four main lessons you can learn now to make this journey more enjoyable and ultimately more effective.
1. You are your own best teacher. If you are being honest with yourself, you already know when you’ve fallen short of your own potential. When you have fallen short, face it head on, acquire the tools and skills you need to do better the next time, and then get back to work. It’s rare that your inner guide will steer you wrong on this.
2. Accept responsibility and blame no one. This is a powerful principle to learn and internalize. Taking responsibility for what is happening around you – whether or not you are directly “responsible” for it, is the only way to turn every experience into a learning experience. “Here’s what I could do differently next time” is a good place to start.
3. You can learn anything you want. This isn’t simply about acquiring information, it’s about seeing the world for what it is, what it could be, and then learning how to bridge that gap. This requires putting knowledge into action.
4. True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience. The highest form of learning is to take some knowledge, apply it directly to what you are working on, and then reflect on how it went. Rinse, wash, repeat. It’s quite simply the most powerful formula you have for growth as a leader and a person.
Knowing The World
The best leaders are obsessed with understanding how the world really works. This means going beyond a narrow focus on your own industry and getting a well-rounded view of the world.
Your formal eduction probably taught you a specific skill, and you probably spent most of your time hanging around people who were acquiring that same specialized skill. For people in leadership positions, this leaves a lot of unfinished business.
Travel, a rich personal life, and finding mentors and groups you can belong to that expose you to different viewpoints and culture all help.
Many of the world’s most successful people participate in what is most widely known as a mastermind group – a collection of individuals who get together on a regular basis to share ideas and help one another work through their challenges.
Finally, learning through adversity is potentially the best education you can get. As we’ve already discussed, making mistakes and then reflecting on them is where much of the “gold” exists. So, get out into the world and make mistakes – just make sure you learn from them.
Deploying Yourself: Strike Hard, Try Everything
At some point in your leadership journey, your true self will emerge. Your goal as a leader is find a way to express that true self in the service of your goals.
Here are four tests you’ll need to pass in order to make that happen.
First, you need to identify what you want in life, what you are capable of doing, and recognize the difference.
Second, you need to know what drives you, what gives you satisfaction, and the difference between the two. Things that drive you are different than things that satisfy you – you can do things you hate if they are in service of things that drive you.
The point of the first two tests is that once you recognize that your ultimate goal is to express yourself, you’ll find the means to achieve your goals, given your abilities. If your goal is instead to prove yourself, you’ll run into problems.
Third, you need to know what your values and priorities are, know the values and priorities of your organization, and measure the difference between the two.
The fourth and final test is, after having measured the differences between what you want and what you are able to do, between what drives and satisfies you, and between what your values are and what the organization’s values are – are you willing and able to overcome those differences?
If you are, you are ready to take on the world as a leader who is full of purpose and fire.
Moving Through Chaos
No matter how well you understand yourself, the world, and deploy yourself fully in the world, there will always be chaos. In fact, one of the most important roles of the leader is to deal with the reality of an unpredictable and chaotic environment.
The only way to deal with chaos is to work your way through it, learn the lessons that are there to learn, and do it better the next time.
As Jacob Bronowski wrote in his book The Ascent of Man, “We have to understand that the world can only be grasped through action, not by contemplation. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well, and having done it well, he loves to do it better.”
In the same way that you can’t learn how to swim in a classroom, you can’t learn leadership from a book. The real lessons are learned when you jump in the deep end and you work to keep your head above water.
Sometimes it doesn’t go very well and you need a hand to get back to dry ground. And that’s ok, because those moments are where the biggest lessons can be learned.
Ernest Hemingway once said that the world breaks all of us, and we grow stronger in the broken places.
Getting People On Your Side
There’s a romanticized version of successful leaders that suggests that charisma and giving great speeches is a prerequisite to leading a great cause or organization.
As Bennis found through his research, the successful leaders do share a trait, but it’s not that.
Instead, it’s the ability to develop and maintain trust. There are four ingredients you need in order to get it:
1. Constancy. No matter what surprises you face, make sure that you don’t create them for your team. Most importantly, remain aligned to your vision and purpose, always.
2. Congruity. Make sure you walk your talk. There should be no gaps between what you preach and what you practice.
3. Reliability. The best leaders are there when it counts, and you are there to support your co-workers when it matters most.
4. Integrity. Honor your commitments and promises, and address them and reset them when you fall short.
Organizations Can Help Or Hinder
Finally, if you are leading an organization where future leadership is important, what you are doing right now is either helping or hindering their development.
Because leadership is a “learn by doing” type of deal, the best thing you can do to develop future leaders in your organization is to give them leadership opportunities early in their careers.
You can give them rotations in different departments and divisions, give them smaller and low margin units to operate, and giving them a chance to turn around struggling units or businesses before selling them off.
Ultimately, this is the only real way to determine who looks good on paper and who looks good on the proverbial playing field. And the solutions that they come up with will probably be things you never would have tried before.
So by serving your future leaders well, you are also serving your business well too.
You may also like to read:
- The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin
- Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell
- Great Business Teams by Howard Guttman
- Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Good to Great by Jim Collins
- Everybody Matters by Bob Chapman
- Multipliers by Liz Wiseman
- The Character Based Leader by Lead Change Group