Bob MacDonald on Business

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Lessons From a Long Life of Learning From Leaders

January 28th, 2013 · No Comments · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership

The Secret to Doing Big Things is not to Sweat the Little Things

My first “real” job was in 1960 when the CEO and owner of a large savings and loan in Los Angeles offered me a summer job. For a few months between my junior and senior year in high school I was hired in the “community affairs” department of the bank. The “community affairs” that interested the CEO was promoting “free enterprise” – aka the Republican Party – in California. Don’t ask me why, but much of my job was to accompany the CEO to various meetings with other “movers and shakers” in Los Angeles, who were also interested in promoting “free enterprise.”

I mention this because the experience gave me – at a young age – the opportunity to be exposed to and learn from strong leaders and successful business magnets. This Leadership Road Signtriggered a lifelong habit of taking note of the leadership styles and philosophies of leaders I encountered, observed or worked for. There were as many – if not more – things I learned to avoid emulating as there were to incorporate in a leadership philosophy, but all were helpful. The practice of cataloging observations and styles of leaders continued over the years and I always found that reviewing these notes was helpful. And, since I am now a certified “old-timer,” I have a bushel basket of them in my collection. What I learned was helpful in the effort to become a better leader and they may be of interest to you as well.

What follows are a few of the major leadership principles and concepts that were learned by observing both effective and failed leaders.

THE SECRET TO DOING BIG THINGS IS NOT TO SWEAT THE LITTLE THINGS …

Successful leaders are unswervingly attentive on the big picture – what is to be achieved – and give others the power, authority and support to achieve it. Leaders establish the vision that defines the “big things,” but does not set rules about how the “little things” are done to achieve big things. When a leader becomes a micro-manager mired in deciding and doing the little things, it is not only difficult to remain focused on the big things, but the desire and power of others to be involved is sapped. Leaders understand that rules are for those they don’t trust; while guidelines are for those they respect. What the successful leader does is paint the vision, set the objectives, establish the rules of engagement and then allow others to sweat the little things.

BELIEVE IN WHAT YOU BELIEVE …

One of the most constant and impressive traits exhibited by effective leaders is self-confidence. Successful leaders have a strong sense of their own destiny. Their attitude is relentlessly evident: “I am destined to accomplish this goal. Nothing will discourage me and I won’t give up until it is accomplished.”

Some see this as inflated ego – and often it is – but it is this inner poise of confidence that allows the leader to remain focused on the objective, regardless of how many setbacks or distractions they may encounter. When they believe what they believe, leaders are not thrown off course by the obstacles to success. The key – and where leaders who fail often fail – is not to allow this self-confidence to curdle into arrogance that can cloud the individual’s thinking in a way that causes them to misread the circumstances or underestimate the challenges. This balance is essential if the leader is to be successful.

USE POWER TO EMPOWER THE POWERLESS …


Effective leaders recognize that sharing power is the accelerant that ignites the talent within an organization to achieve the objective. Empowering others is the very definition of power, because doing so encourages others to become attached to the objective to be reached. Often the cause of failed leadership can be traced to a misconception that empowering others equates to a diminution of one’s own power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The essence of empowering others is not abdicating power, but it is sharing the benefits of power which boils down to giving others the opportunity to make a difference. Successful leaders understand that when others believe they are empowered to have an impact on the outcome, it makes a difference in their attitude and effort. All effective leaders understand intuitively that the way to gain more power is to share power.

LEADERS MAINTAIN THEIR HEADING IN THE FACE OF HEADWINDS …

If an objective is worth achieving, it will be confronted by headwinds of obstruction all the way to the end. If a leader is not receiving resistance to their vision, they are not far enough out in front of the crowd to be a leader. There is no greater threat to the efficacy of a leader than to be blown off course by the headwinds on the road to success and to constantly change direction. Nothing is more bedeviling for followers than to have their leader betray them with inconsistency. Strong leaders are a lifeline in the wind of resistance, giving followers steadiness of purpose and a constant focus on the destination. No matter what the challenge or distraction, effective leaders make sure the vision is consistent, concise and constant; with no sudden or unexplained change in course, so that what people see is what they get.

PEER PRESSURE FOR LEADERS IS THE PRESSURE THEY PUT ON THEMSELVES TO PERFORM; NOT THE PERFORMANCE OF PEERS …

One who is attentive to the performance of peers is not a leader, but a follower. A leader does not lead an organization to success by being a peer, but by being peerless in the face of competition. It is a clear sign of insipid, uninspired and insecure leadership when a leader seeks to use the actions of peers to measure their achievements. Nothing inhibits the ability of an organization to innovate and grow more than to be burdened with a leader who slavishly follows the siren song of peer group comparison. Leaders who are addicted to peer group analysis clearly signal that they are more concerned with keeping up, than keeping ahead of the competition. The reality is that peer group analysis is the code for conformity. Concern for the actions of peers is the greatest enemy of the leader who seeks the creativity and innovation necessary to achieve great things.

LEADERS RECOGNIZE THEY HAVE A BETTER CHANCE FOR SUCCESS IF THEY ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES WHO CARE ABOUT THEIR SUCCESS …

Those leaders who achieve success have a deep abiding belief that success depends on their ability to enlist the support and efforts of others. Leaders can fail on their BillGatesown but they can’t succeed without help. True leaders understand that no matter how strong their personal need or drive for success may be, unless they exhibit real concern for the needs of the followers and are responsive to their desires to become a stakeholder in a larger effort that imbues their daily life with purpose beyond the simplicity of activity, success forever remains a dream and never a reality. Leaders enlist the efforts of others in their quest for success by creating a “partnership of power” that demonstrates to followers that the talent they possess is recognized and they are respected for the value they can create. This, in turn, encourages the support of the follower for the success of the leader, because it becomes their success as well.

LEADERS DEFINE SUCCESS BY WHAT IS YET TO BE ACHIEVED; NOT BY WHAT HAS BEEN ACCOMPLISHED IN THE PAST …

Real leaders do not view success as a place in time or a fixed target, but rather as a consistent effort to be better in the future than they have been in the past. This type of leader recognizes that when the success of an organization is defined by what has been accomplished, instead of what can be accomplished, the door is open for complacency to enter. The successful leader constantly seeks to create an environment in which past success is seen not as something to rest on but to build on; so that continuing achievement becomes the mindset of the organization.

And the Moral of the Story …

Leadership is not a task, but rather a cherished and elusive talent. The most essential requirement for developing the talent to lead is to cultivate the capacity to visualize the future, not simply to be prepared for what it may bring, but to influence the future itself. Simultaneously the leader must exhibit the capacity to meet the needs, concerns and emotions of followers. And to do this in such a way as to give followers both a vision of the future and a confidence that you know how to bring the future forward and that the vision of that future can become reality.

Effective leadership can be studied, but it can’t be copied. Learning the principles of leadership can be an effective start, but knowing what to do as a leader does not make one a leader. The quintessence of leadership is as subtle, yet as distinctive as a fingerprint. The key is to observe and note how others use or abuse the principles of leadership; not to copy, but to understand what works and what fails. Only by doing so can you develop an approach and style that will allow you to create your own unique fingerprint on leadership. In reality, when it comes to becoming a successful leader, it is all about focus on the big things and not sweating the little things.

 

 

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