Questions on Leadership

After Luca Luigi Rosi, a London-based journalist, read my Harvard Business Review blog, he wrote to ask me some questions on leadership so he could post them for his readers.  I think his questions and my answers might stimulate your own thinking around the foundational principles of leadership.  Please take a look at the last question and do yourself a quick favour - answer the question yourself.  If you’d like, please post your comment for all of our readers - we can learn together and have some fun.  Thanks!

Luca:  If there’s one lesson to be learned about good leadership, what would it be?
Doug:  Most leadership books are formulaic and miss the key point that what is needed from leaders depends on the situation.  A country in a crisis needs a different type of leader than a country that is growing and reinvesting.  An organization that needs to be turned around needs a different kind of leader than an organization that needs to scale by a factor of ten.  Leadership and it’s behaviors are always determined by context.  The lesson here for a person who aspires to be a leader is to know what you can be great at and find the right context to express your talents.  For instance, I’m best at growth opportunities where the pie is ever expanding.  I’m not great at turn-around situations nor at leading incremental change.  I need to find companies I can help lead who want to grow in a significant way. 

Luca:  The frontline is the bottom line. Do you think leaders are visible enough?
Doug:  Too many leaders are not involved in the gritty encounters where engagement with the customer is realized.  In this age of transparent social networks, leaders are becoming much more aware of how important it is to improve the customer experience at the front lines.  The problem is that many try to solve this problem with complex “customer experience surveys.”  Data is inputted and executives analyze it.  The data from the surveys is certainly helpful but often misses discovering the real opportunities for improvement.  For instance, I can tell you in a survey what I liked or did not like, but I’m not going to suggest a more creative way for your company to handle your overall customer experience process.  The best way for a leader to design innovative improvements is through face-to-face interactions with both real customers and real employees at the front lines. 

Listen to the underlying story being told when you talk with a customer or employee – the narrative that is being woven about your company.  Are you proud of it?  Does the story inspire customers and does it motivate your associates to be their very best for others? Bottom line, there is no substitute for interactive visibility by a leader.   

Luca:  What are the behaviors that leaders should be rewarded for? 
Doug:  Again leadership is determined by context.  However, in general the modern connected economy requires leaders to craft new capacities such as:   

  1. First and foremost, crafting a narrative that speaks to your entire community of involved stakeholders.  If you as a leader can appeal to each constituent’s desire for meaning, purpose, connection, and the feeling that you are building an important community of stakeholders who can make a difference in this world, then you understand not only the power of a pay check, but also the power of your narrative to inspire the best in all of your stakeholders. 
  2. Thinking about your organization in the context of a total system and how the system serves the larger purpose.  Dr. Michael Maccoby, a renowned expert on leadership, refers to this as Strategic Intelligence.
  3. Collaborating across teams and organizations to build synergy toward the common purpose.
  4. Partnering with your broader community of stakeholders, including shareholders, suppliers, and potential joint venture partners.  For instance, Master Card partners with mobile telephone companies to build simple payment systems without a plastic credit card.
  5. Knowing your strengths – surrounding yourself with the best people possible to compliment your strengths.  Do not underestimate the importance of picking great people that compliment your own abilities.

Luca:  Leading by example – your top three takeaways. 

  1. Leaders cast a big arc of sunshine or darkness.  If you want to Lead By Example, you have to Be The Example. Everyone is watching how you behave and they will emulate your actions.  Therefore, always ask, “Is my behavior in this moment something I want others to imitate when I’m not present?”  If you can’t give a big affirmative “yes,” then first change your behavior.
  2. Reinforce behaviors in others that support the culture you want to build.
  3. Put a firm boundary around behaviors you do not want to see in the organization.  The actions you disapprove of are more important than the ones you support.  People will take notice and word travels fast.  

Luca:  What advice would you give me to get ahead in my chosen career?
Doug:  The best advice I can give an emerging leader is to listen to your own personal narrative – what are you most passionate about and how do you want others to describe the contribution you are making in the world?  Ask the question, “What will others say about how I help them change their world?”  Focus on your narrative from the point of view of the contribution you make to others – not about how wealthy or powerful you will be.  Your best bet to get ahead is to do something significant that helps others get ahead.