Plenty of leaders don’t really lead. They think they do, but in reality they follow the paths forged by other businesses rather than set their own course. Others just shift indecisively with circumstances. In effect, they’re little more than overpaid followers replicating what they’ve seen done before. So what’s a better approach?
It can be dangerous for those in leadership roles to compare themselves too closely with others. The spread of benchmarking from the Total Quality Management model has led to an obsession with mirroring the performance and working styles of others, which can lead to crippling sameness rather than innovation. This isn’t to say that making such comparisons isn’t useful at all, just that we need to be careful how we do it.
After all, it’s worth pointing out that benchmarking is a useful tool of management, not leadership. It lets us see what’s already being achieved, offering a point of comparison for judging performance. But that doesn’t align with the main goals of good leadership. Leadership is about choosing a direction, which you can’t always do by imitating someone else’s best practice. If you do, you’re following, not leading.
The work of true leaders adds something to the world they work in. As author and business coach Ruth Schwartz has pointed out, the call to “give back” through socially beneficial activities outside of work implies that the work we do doesn’t do much good on its own. It’s true that most commercial efforts don’t have the same sorts of goals as charities and nonprofits, but the best companies still contribute something of value. If you’re leading a team or organization that doesn’t add more to the world than it takes, it’s time to step back and consider where and how you’re leading.
Successful leaders create value, they don’t just make money. That means providing something people want that they wouldn’t otherwise get. True leaders drive toward something new that’s currently missing from the world–even if that goal is unproven at first. Amazon’s recent decision to start paying self-published authors by the page for e-books read in its subscription-based Kindle Unlimited program is something that hasn’t yet been tried. It has the potential to align the interests of authors and readers more closely than before, rewarding the writers who keep their audiences engaged. It’s the sort of innovation that reaches for something new and substantive, rather than what’s expected.
Many leaders fall back on generic solutions and quick fixes, tackling problems only as they crop up. But that ad hoc approach only works if what you’re doing is suitable to your specific organization and its circumstances. If you’re adopting an established solution or just trying the latest approach you’ve read about, then the chances of a good fit are low.
A true leader understands her organization. Spend time listening, thinking, and developing that understanding–it takes time. Make sure each move you make stands a good shot of addressing the specific nature of the problem at hand. Sometimes what worked before won’t necessarily work again. Don’t pick a solution suitable for an organization, pick the one for your organization.
True leadership is specific, substantial, and sets its own course. If you want to truly lead, following familiar patterns is rarely ever enough.