VIDEO: Big Question: What Does It Take to Lead?

People often ask me, “What are the essential attributes of leadership?”

It’s a big question — but let me borrow from something I heard from Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball.” He said a political pollster told him once that every great leader need to demonstrate three things:

Motive. Passion. Spontaneity.

Motive, passion and spontaneity complement one another. A leader who is motivated, passionate and spontaneous can use these attributes to build what all leaders need: trust, that bond that links followers to the individual and the cause.

First posted on Smart Brief on 8/03/2013

Use Salesmanship to Energize Your Organization (HBR)

What do Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, have in common? Not only are both shrewd businessmen who have increased the net worth of their respective organizations substantially, both serve as de facto CSOs, “chief sales officers.”

Jones personally makes sales presentations to prospects interested in the luxury suites at the brand-new $1.2 billion Cowboy Stadium. During one pitch, Jones punctuated his spiel with a combination of charm and Cowboy lore. Ballmer is the relentless sales leader for Microsoft who once exhorted his sales staff so vigorously that he injured his vocal chords. Today he is more subdued, but is always pushing the Microsoft brand at conferences, media events, and to customers.

The sales techniques that make these two so successful with customers can also be used to create enthusiasm internally. Energizing an organization begins with selling the dream, and leaders need to employ some good old-fashioned salesmanship to accomplish it.

Link to aspiration. Appeal to one thing that many of us crave: legacy. Effective salesmen, and leaders, connect to people’s aspirations for something more, something bigger than themselves. If you need to generate enthusiasm for a new initiative or product launch, focus on how much better the company will be when the transformation occurs or the new product drops. Savvy leaders make it known that such good things can only occur when talented employees join together to make good things happen.

Address the negatives. There is always resistance in the sales process. From a transactional viewpoint, employees (like customers) may prefer the status quo because even if things are uncomfortable, they are known. You can’t ignore the negatives — deal with them head on. Acknowledge them and defuse them with an effective argument. Also, never over-promise.

Sometimes it’s possible to turn negatives into positives. For example, reorganizations always provoke thoughts of downsizing. Acknowledge that notion then either dismiss it because it is untrue or acknowledge its validity. Then, talk about how the reorganization will cause short-term pain in the interest of creating long-term gain like increased opportunities for individuals to maximize their skills and achieve more for themselves and the company.

Sell from the top. When employees see their leader selling to a customer, or pushing an initiative through the organization, it sends a message that no one is too big or too important to engage in salesmanship. Any member of an organization should consider selling, or more realistically, promoting the work of the company. Do this by talking up the work your organization does, what good products it makes, and how those products help make the lives of others better.

Be forewarned, however, that too much salesmanship can appear to be slickness. Avoid this by tempering your enthusiasm with periodic reality checks and remember to listen to stakeholders. It’s a part of sales process that is often overshadowed by sheer enthusiasm.

Effective salesmanship shouldn’t be confused with leadership. Salesmanship rests on persuasion; leadership is based on good example. Leaders can use sales techniques to bolster their organization, but must remember to then set an example that leads to trust.

First posted on 9/10/2009

Humility as a Leadership Trait (HBR)

Want to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be an effective leader and have people follow your direction?

Be humble!

That lesson echoed with me as I read a David Brooks column in the New York Times in which he describes listening to an archival recording of “Command Performance,” a radio variety show originally broadcast on V-J Day. Celebrities abounded but according to Brooks, “the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility.” Victory was welcome but marked with dignity.

Leaders who want to inspire followership, and I use the word “inspire” deliberately, need to demonstrate not simply their accomplishments but their character. Take pride in what you have done, but use it as a platform to bring people together to do greater things, e.g. increase sales, improve quality, or save the planet. Use your leadership for something other than self-aggrandizement.

A sense of humility is essential to leadership because it authenticates a person’s humanity. We humans are frail creatures; we have our faults. Recognizing what we do well, as well as what we do not do so well, is vital to self-awareness and paramount to humility. Here are some ways to demonstrate humility in the workplace.

Temper authority. Power comes with rank but you don’t have to pull it to make it work for you. You can encourage others to make decisions by delegating authority and responsibility. Encourage your people to write their own performance objectives and set team goals. Allow them to make decisions. Your authority comes in the form of imposing order and discipline.

Look to promote others. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman note in their seminal text, First, Break All the Rules, that a characteristic of successful managers is their ability to promote others, sometimes to positions higher than their own. Such managers are talent groomers, they are ones upon whose leadership success of the enterprise rests.

Acknowledge what others do. Few have said it better than legendary Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.” Practice that attitude always, especially when things are not going well, and your team will rally together because they want you to succeed. In short, humility breeds humility.

Can you be too humble in the workplace? Yes. If you fail to put yourself, or more importantly your ideas, forward, you will be overlooked. Chances for promotion will evaporate, but worse you will not give anyone a reason to believe in you. All of us need not lead others, but those who do seek to influence, to change, to guide, and to lead their organizations, need to find ways to get noticed. Again humility comes to the rescue. That is, if you celebrate team first, self second, people will notice what you and your team have achieved.

And once more, let me return to Brook’s column in which he cites a passage from Ernie Pyle who had been killed in action in the Pacific months before in anticipation of victory. “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples.”

In today’s corporate speak we might say we had a diverse team with ample resources and we are thankful for the opportunity to compete. But I prefer Pyle’s closing admonishment. “I hope that we are more grateful than we are proud.”

First posted on 9/15/2009

VIDEO: Leader as Craftsman

Craftsmanship is the bedrock principle in the manual arts. We admire artists and artisans who make things with their hands, yet we often overlook craftsmanship when it comes to working with our minds.

So what about leaders? Can you think of leadership as a craft?

Regarding leadership as a craft forces the leader to consider leadership as both art and practice. The practice comes from doing it; the art comes from knowing when to do it. And getting it right most of the time. Just like a fine craftsman.

First posted on Smart Brief on 9/13/2013

Putting the Art of Leadership into Practice (HBR)

For the past ten months or so, I have had the privilege of traveling around North America speaking about what it takes to lead in hard times. Sometimes I joke that if I knew “hard times” would be so popular a topic I would have thought of it sooner; I guess I just needed the economy to cooperate.

Lame joke aside, I can think of few times when the subject of leadership has been more pertinent or its practice more necessary. And I say this with full recognition that part of the blame for the great recession we are enduring rests on a failure of leadership in both the public and private sectors. Those in positions of authority abandoned both the practice as well as the art of leadership. It’s time for us to learn more about both.

The practice of leadership is setting the right example, providing vision and guidance, and doing all that is necessary for people in the organization to succeed. The really hard part, the art of leadership, is knowing what to do, and when, why, and how to do it.

Let me give you an example that was shared with me by Mark Shearon, an executive vice president of TBA Global, an event marketing and communications agency. TBA’s Detroit office had once done good business servicing the automotive industry, but with the recent downturn in automotive fortunes, the office lost a significant amount of business. The easy decision would have been to close the office. But Mark and his team had a better idea that would save jobs. “We wanted to ensure that we kept a Detroit presence since we had been in that community for over 10 years. At the same time, our meeting planning business was growing.”

So TBA re-purposed the office, shifting it from producing events and meetings to doing meeting planning. Furthermore, as Shearon explains, “In Detroit there was a good pool of people with the right skill set for that kind of business and office space is cheaper.” TBA also relocated staffers from other cities and, Shearon says, today has “a buzzing and successful division there.” As this example illustrates, the art of leadership involved saving people’s jobs; the practice of leadership was a sound management decision to create a new use for the Detroit office.

Learning the difference between these two aspects is a good way to get a handle on what is required of leaders.

Practice involves management. For leaders, the administration of responsibility and execution of tasks may not be glamorous, but it is essential. Without a strong attention to detail and adherence to goals and objectives, organizations go awry. At the same time a leader needs to manage not just detail but also people. Managing people involves putting them into positions where they can succeed and supporting them in that effort.

Art involves sensibility. As with so much in life, you need to pick your moments. Not every situation calls for a leader to act; sometimes a leader does more by standing back and letting the team decide what to do. Though, in times of crisis, the leader may need to be front and center, making decisions, providing hands-on advice, and taking action to help get things done. Knowing what to do and when to do it comes with experience, but knowing how to act and the degree of involvement to use is something that cannot be prescribed exactly; it will be perceived by others much as an art form might be.

While there are many reasons to learn more about the art and practice of leadership, there is one aspect often overlooked. Management is a downward process: handling the details. Leadership is an upward process: giving guidance — it is aspirational by nature. For an organization struggling in tough times, aspiration is essential; it gives a glimpse of a better tomorrow, and by extension a reason to slog through another day, week or whatever it takes. And that requires not only practice, but a degree of art to see over the horizon.

First posted on 9/18/2009