Methods of Excellence was released in September and concludes my Excellence in Business series. I've also included the figure from the book below.
38 Leadership Traits
Leadership is one of those words so overused that it has lost a good deal of its meaning. One of the reasons I put it at the end of this series is that as an ROTC cadet I was taught that all leadership is by example. That’s what I’ve been doing since the first chapter of Foundations of Excellence: giving examples of good and poor leadership.
At this point in the Excellence in Business Leadership series, it should be pretty clear what is meant by leadership but it’s worth summarizing key tenets. First and foremost leaders understand that it’s all about the people. Technology, processes, wealth, and fame may be on every titular leader’s mind but the real leaders will see themselves as servants to their employees.
Real leaders have sterling personal character of courage, integrity, judgement, and dedication. Real leaders display what Jack Welch in his book Winning called 4-E and 1-P framework of high energy, ability to energize others, edge, execution, and passion for what they do. And real leaders aren’t Wonder Woman or Superman.
Real leaders are regular people who bet their life on a great cause and, working with those they lead, set out to change the world. That is why the first thing they do after setting core purpose is inspire.
As Jim Collings highlights in Good to Great, real leaders see a problem, get into the middle of it, and separate the people from the problem. What a contrast real leaders make from the pretenders.
Pretenders like everything I just said about real leaders; they just don’t want the inconvenience of walking the talk. Pretenders are focused on title, motivate by threats to fire, and only communicate what they have to. As I’ve covered in example after example, pretenders avoid showing up when the heat is on, when their people are facing a tough problem. That is because they want to distance themselves from their people. Why? Because for them, people are the problem.
In another contrast to the stereotypes, real leaders treat their team as family but don’t cross the bright line of over-familiarity. That’s opposite from pretenders.
Pretenders have favorites, sometimes even family member favorites, and everyone else is expendable. When the occasional good thing does happen, they take unearned credit and dole it to their favorites. But there is always an outside group set up for blame. That is the most telling thing about leadership in suboptimal companies: when problems arise people are the problem.
The real leaders view themselves accountable to tackle every tough problem in their area. They view it as the prime opportunity to lead. When discussing leadership, it’s worth discussing another misunderstood topic: delegation.
In this Information Age where nearly everything can be known, many view the stereotypical leader as the consummate micromanager. That may be the stereotype of a real leader, but that’s not the reality. A nod to one of the greatest management gurus should help explain.
As I covered in the process section, Peter Drucker came to believe after seeing some of the most centralized economic and business systems imaginable that the most efficient management was decentralized. What does that mean for the modern leader? That means real leaders learn how to delegate. And that is an art.
Jim Morgan at Applied Materials was famous for saying leaders delegate without abdicating responsibility. That is the delegation tenet in a nutshell. The leader, much like the California safety training of ‘be a manager, go to jail’, is responsible for their team’s actions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But that doesn’t mean they micromanage them.
The best way to delegate is to use something called KPIs – key process indicators. Well done KPI’s are the intersection of leadership and management. In the parlance of you lead people and manage things, KPIs are the way you see if the people you lead are managing well the things they’re responsible for. KPIs are quantified things like bookings, revenue, gross margin, budget spending, installation times, forecast accuracy, etc.
How a leader delegates without abdicating responsibility is through judicious use of KPIs. In every role I’ve been in from junior manager to CEO, I’ve always established something called stoplight chart KPIs for those I led.
Stoplight KPIs take a group’s key metrics and define goodness. If the group is hitting their agreed goodness performance metric, that is colored green. If the group is missing by a small amount, that KPI is colored yellow and the leader of that group needs to have a good plan in place. If the group is missing by a large gap, the KPI is red and, at that point, it’s understood I get to micromanage until we fix the problem. That’s how it works in great companies.
You can see the leader’s involvement is on a sliding scale. The bigger the problem, the more involvement. The more difficulty the subordinate leader is having, the more help they get.
Okay, some may be asking, but what makes a leader? After all the examples and tenets aren’t there a list of things other than personal character that make a leader? How does a leader in a group dynamic act?
At this point I’m going to go to a list from my U.S. Army ROTC days. I considered starting the whole excellence series with this list but thought the better of it. Every U.S. Military officer gets literally years of leadership training. And that training is relevant. But, there are two things different in business. They are the foundational things of core purpose and inspiration to be the best.
In the U.S. Military, there is no doubt about the core purpose and we certainly never accept being second place on a battlefield. And resources are aligned to achieve success without a fixation on cost. You do what it takes to win.
In business, core purpose must be defined and is unique industry to industry and business to business. The imperative to be the best isn’t as apparent (although it is just a crucial) and the fuel and measure of that success is profit. That’s why I didn’t tee up leadership or leadership traits in Foundations of Excellence or Functions of Excellence.
But what I attempted to show through my fictional characters were examples in every foundational, functional, or methodological area in contrasting understandable situations. What I hope shone through were the key leadership traits. Although all leadership is by example, it’s worth listing them for clarity and consideration.
I was taught that a leader displays and lives fourteen traits: bearing, courage, decisiveness, dependability, endurance, enthusiasm, initiative, integrity, judgement, justice, knowledge, loyalty, unselfishness, and tact. This list provides a good template. Think about those in leadership positions you see every day and how they display these traits.
Bearing is simply exuding a professional competent presence in dress, fitness, and posture. You should look the part. Courage is overcoming physical and moral fear and doing what’s right and accepting the consequences of your actions.
Decisiveness means you take whatever information you have, make a clear yes-no decision, and own it. Dependability means your team can count on you to be in the toughest mix of the toughest fights.
Endurance is important and often overlooked. Endurance means the leader has the intestinal fortitude to be physically present in those tough fights. The leader has to be physically tough enough to lead by example and that means putting in the fourteen hour days alongside subordinates. As we saw in the Laxman example, employees deride a titular leader who is often absent with personal or sickness excuses.
Enthusiasm covers what Jack Welch in Winning talked about with his first two E’s: energy and ability to energize others. No one wants to work with someone perpetually under a black cloud and complaining about it. The leader comes into work every day and exudes high energy that can be seen and felt by every employee in the organization.
Initiative is acting and getting the tasks done without being told to do so. It is one of the most important traits of leaders and is killed in a culture of micromanagement.
Integrity is a key trait that needs a comeback. Media often shows the stereotypical Machiavellian leader that views any means as acceptable for the right end. Don’t believe it. Real leaders know their true value only comes with unquestioned integrity. It’s sad that integrity is now viewed as quaint.
You’ll never regret adhering to your personal integrity but, in today’s society, it will cost you. But if you want the mantle of the real leader, that cost is worth it. Integrity also lends itself to loyalty which is to your cause and your team as well as to your boss. Judgement and justice – being fair – also flow easily from leaders with unquestioned integrity.
Unselfishness may seem odd in this list. It conjures religious connotations of self-sacrifice. But that’s not what it means for the leader. We’ve all seen careerists like Amaras who couldn’t care less about their cause or team. It’s all about what makes them look good. Titular leaders who only care about themselves may get temporary rewards but they go down the path of Craig and Laxman and never inspire a team to achieve a great cause.
And that’s what it’s all about. As I’ve said over and again, the company we work for defines our life’s purpose and it ought to be a great one. Selfish people in titular leadership positons worry first and foremost ‘what’s best for me’. They will never shake the mantle of the pretender. If you believe in your cause, your company’s cause, give yourself to it. And the rest will follow.
The last trait I’m going to highlight is tact. My ROTC sergeant major gave me a definition of tact that I will never forget: tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that he wants to go. The titular leader who feels the need for shouting, swearing, and vulgarity isn’t one to lead a team in solving the tough problems of humanity.
The slide below summarizes the 4-E and 1-P framework and 14 leadership traits for your reference.
This framework and these traits inform how I write about good and poor leadership, about how those with leadership titles in great or suboptimal companies act. The final and most important point is that leadership is never the rank on your collar, your title, or a popularity contest. Real leadership is in inspiring your team to do the right things by your personal example. With that comment, let’s take one more look at how Steve, Beth, Cathy, and Dan experience leadership in business.