The most critical determinant of success is leadership, but that’s not any leadership; it’s a particular form of leadership that has been recognised and acknowledged for over 3000 years. The importance of leadership is not new, but we still struggle to express what we mean when we speak to leadership and its role in success.
Active Knowledge Question:
How do you know a leader when you see one and before you know their organisational title?
An Australian doctoral research project of some 8000 business leaders asked them to identify the No.1 determinant of business success, and their overwhelming response was ‘strong leadership setting direction and focus’. Importantly, this strength in leadership was built upon:
- Focusing on the customer
- Vision in setting the future course
- Creating the correct culture
- Proactivity not reactivity
- Recognising the importance of employees
- Identifying and building on core competencies
- Adaptability to pursue new opportunities.
Reach back some 3000+ years and study the Classical Chinese works on nation building and military strategy, and you will discover that the No. 1 determinant of success was expressed as ‘worthy leadership’. Leadership was defined with a deeper focus on character and relationships and called for leaders to:
- Be selected on character; only those displaying the correct character traits.
- Build a bond with their people founded in trust and common purpose.
- Ensure equity of rewards across all levels of society.
- Recognise that only the pursuit of righteous causes can motivate people.
And it saw this approach to leadership as being necessary for any attempt of building a community to be successful; it was a systemic approach to building empires.
What I may describe as a contemporary expression of leadership, and relevant in our business community, speaks more to external factors that will bring about strength in leadership; customers, vision, culture etc. Whereas the classical view of leadership developed over 1000’s years of practice and experience looks to the individual first and whom they are as a person leading to the relationships and trust they can build.
In both instances, the goal of leadership was to muster the effort, talent and contribution of the people in the pursuit of a goal. They may be combined as the model of leadership, which commences with character and then moves forward to the tools that a leader may use. Tools to ‘muster effort/talent/contribution’, but only if the correct foundation of character is present and only if the tools are used with the correct focus, that is, a righteous cause.
From this framework, we can readily see why many of today’s leaders are struggling to lead and rely upon ‘authority’ to command. Leaders may be empowered with authority, but if a leader has to use their authority to ensure their people follow, then they have lost any ‘leadership’ they may have possessed or been entitled to.
Why do I say that today’s leaders struggle to lead? Simply because of the way in which we typically select our leaders and view their roles.
The core character of a person is typically not considered in appointing someone as a leader. We may seek to assess their competencies and certainly their experience and performance record, but who they are deep down as a person, well, that is almost off-limits.
Where profit is seen as the purpose for which a business exists, there can be no trust and engagement built between leaders and the people working within and with that business. The workers know that they are seen as a cost centre and will be sacrificed to uphold profits. Further, a purpose of profit cannot be viewed as righteous, there is no inner pride for most workers in the profits of their company, and it will not attract the potential that exists within them.
And self-interest is the antithesis of success and simply just weakens anyone’s strength as a leader.
So, we need to step away from the attributes that seem to have attached themselves to leadership and clean-up and simplify the role of leadership.
Leaders sit at the centre of their communities and are visible to everyone; note, not on top but at the centre.
Leaders set the example and tone for their community, and the way they act will be the signal to everyone; note, act, not speak, and this rests in their character as a person.
Leaders set the direction in which their community should move and why this is important, and therefore it must be a direction that is beneficial to that community and not seeded through self-interest (profit).
The core strength of any community rests in the combined talent and effort that is able to be drawn to and focused on an expressed goal. In a business context, this mustering of effort defines its competitive strength as an organisation.
Leaders connect with their communities through the example they live, the relationships they model and create and the care they display for the welfare of every individual member of their community.
People follow leaders because of what they can do for them and the trust that they hold in that person, and their degree of commitment to a leader is relative to that sense of welfare and trust. If leaders are distant and not real to their people, then the connections will be weak. But if the connections are strong and alive, then that leader is able to influence and move their community.
Leaders in every context need to reflect on their example and the connections they build as their strength as leader rest in these attributes.
The role of leaders is one most easily defined as ‘enabling’. Their one simple task is to bring the potential that resides in each and every person to the forefront and applied to the goal at hand, whether that be simply today’s tasks or the pursuit of a challenging vision.
Leaders enable others to succeed, and they then succeed because of everyone else’s efforts; this is the essence of leadership.
How do leaders enable others? Here are some examples, through and by:
- Who they are as a person deep-down. This is where the context of worthy leadership sits. Are they able to place others first ahead of themselves? Are the humble and able to listen? Are they grateful in their lives and able to celebrate the successes of others?
- Casting a purpose and vision that is worthy of others to commit themselves to.
- Focus on the needs of others – customers and employees.
- Invest in and strengthen each individual and the community’s capability to excel in areas at which they are best.
- Uphold equity and fairness in their community ahead of others and their self-interest.
- Creating a culture that supports and insists upon all of the above.
- Only appoint leaders who will do the same.
Leaders should assess themselves and be assessed on their ability to muster the potential of others. If they do this well, then everything else will take care of itself, and success will be the outcome.
We can make leadership all about our individual success and seek to climb the ladder on the backs of others. But that is honestly the harder path and the one to a lesser success. Leaders become great and build great businesses because they are able to unleash the potential of those within their community and direct that energy. And the starting point of this leadership journey rests in who they are as individuals and how they view and act out their role as leaders.
An entirely new level of performance.
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All the best in the success of your business,