Leadership is the "eighth wonder of the world." It is better seen and felt than defined and said. It’s easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize.
The world’s most impactful leaders in all arenas, from business to government, understand the paradox that although leadership starts with the leader, it’s never about the leader. This wisdom should be emulated and applied by everyone who aspires to leadership.
As the leader, you need to be hands on, but your primary objective is to empower others to make decisions and take actions that are aligned with the organization’s vision, purpose, and strategy. You’re "all in" in terms of commitment, but the spotlight is always on the results of the team. It’s not about you.
These nuances are the softer side of leadership, beyond the technical skills that you have already mastered on your way to becoming a leader. These are the truths that can make or break your leadership—and there’s nothing simple about them. It takes real effort to empower people or reward a team continuously with praise and acknowledgement. It’s a commitment on the part of a leader to do more listening than speaking, so that others feel heard and valuable feedback is collected. Leaders must always be learning.
When I became a CEO, I had developed the ability to strategize, implement, and execute. Once I was in the job, however, I had new lessons to learn: For one, that as the CEO I was no longer just myself. When I spoke, it wasn’t just for me. People perceived me differently because of the position and the institution I represented.
I noticed this first when people began to read my mood like tea leaves. If I was worried, distracted, or having a "gray day," they suddenly began to wonder if they should be concerned. I quickly understood that I needed to convey my messages not only with what I said, but also how I said it. I did away with the Power Points and focused more attention on my tone. This became imperative during the economic downturn of 2008-09, when I had to show by my words, actions, and attitude that not only did we have a plan (and it proved to be a good one), but that I had full faith in its success (which I did). When you’re the leader people will always look to you for assurance that "we’re really going to get there."
As you define and distinguish your leadership, here are some tips and insights for mastering the all-important softer side.
Leaders are the mirrors for the entire organization. If the leader is down, the organization will follow. If leaders reflect optimism and confidence, the organization will rise. Good leaders have the ability after every conversation to make people feel better, more capable, and more willing to stretch than they did before the conversation occurred.
Leadership is taking charge to help others execute. A leader does not tell people what to think or do, but rather guides them in what to think about. Taking charge means setting the strategy and agenda—and also making sure that the length and pace of the runway is right for the organization to actualize that agenda. Remember, it’s others who will need to execute against that plan. If you try to charge up the mountain without the buy-in of your followers, you’ll soon find yourself trekking alone.
Leadership is awareness of what you’re not hearing. It’s a fact of life as a leader: People won’t tell you want you really need to know, only what they think you want to hear. To keep from being isolated, you need to be out there and engaged. Stay close to your customers and employees. Ask questions with an inquiring mind (not to conduct an "inquisition"). Look to reopen eyes to situations and possibilities, staring with yours.
Leadership should be humbling. Humility is the grace that constantly whispers, "It’s not about you." Humility means that you know who you are, where you’ve been, and what you have accomplished. With that knowledge, you can get out of your own way and focus on others with confidence that you can lead, inspire, and guide them.
Leadership has an endpoint—organizations should not. Leaders must recognize the endpoint of their leadership is not the endpoint for the organization. Just as leaders took over from someone else, so others will follow them as successors. Your job as a leader is to be the source of energy and change to grow the organization during your time and to act as a steward. Then you will turn it over to another in better shape than when you inherited it.
Leadership is all about how you make other people feel. Your achievement as a leader is measured in the success of others. To motivate and inspire, you must shift from "what must be done" to "why we’re doing this." You can’t just put up the targets and tell people to take aim in order to reap a short-term reward. Leadership conveys and embodies the enduring purpose and deeper reasons for an organization’s existence.
As a leader, you plan, strategize, and set priorities. Your primary responsibilities, however, are always to inspire, motivate, and empower others. As a leader, you rise above "me" to embrace "we."
—Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leader in talent development. He is also the author of The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership (McGraw-Hill, March 2012) and the New York Times bestseller No Fear of Failure (Jossey-Bass 2011).
[Image: Flickr user chiptape]