What is successful leadership?
Effective leadership is a multi-faceted and sustained ability to energize, engage and influence other people; finding positive ways to restore dedication to organizational commitments and vision. Effective leaders need to engage individuals and awaken “sleeping” commitments to organizational objectives and vision. It’s vital for leaders to connect with others to sell their vision for the organization. Successful leadership is adapting well to changing business environments so effective interpersonal skills, strong conflict resolution abilities and a talent for negotiations are critical to leadership roles. In The Work of Leadership, Heifetz and Laurie confirm that leaders need to be adaptive to meet the challenges of a dynamic and ever-changing business environment. More importantly, “a leader must mobilize and motivate others to find adaptive solutions to today’s changing business challenges.” For instance, the absence of an agreement by the international community on climate change has the Executive Leadership of Levi Strauss concerned about the impact that global warming will have on cotton prices and as a consequence, the apparel company is charting out it business operations and supply chain in the event that water shortages cause damage to cotton plants. Starbucks’ leadership is so concerned about the impact of global warming on coffee beans the company has begun to incentivize coffee plantations to utilize techniques to stop soil erosion. Adaptive challenges encountered by business leaders can also present opportunities for leaders. In the global warming example for instance, General Electric expects revenue from GE's water recycling business targeted for use in power plants, agriculture, and manufacturing to grow more than 10 percent a year through at least 2016. DuPont anticipates rising demand for drought-resistant crops to expand its $8.2 billion agriculture business. Whether a challenge or opportunity, successful leadership is always adapting to changing business circumstances---even making adaption a component of their companies’ business strategy.
Effective sustainable, servant and values-driven leaders share some common attributes and qualities. They are empathetic, honest, and sensitive to diverse points of view of others. These leaders also show compassion and respect, listen attentively, elicit concerns and calm fears, answer questions honestly, and involve employees at all levels in the organization’s decision-making process. The empathetic approach to leadership that servant leaders demonstrate emphasizes the concept of social intelligence, which is rooted in the belief that “brain chemistry and interpersonal competencies can inspire others to be effective.” For example if a socially intelligent leader is enthusiastic about a new business strategy or direction, employees tend to show enthusiasm, which makes it easier for the leader to sell his or her vision for that new strategy, direction of product. The concept of social intelligence in empathetic leadership is front-and-center in the article Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership. Authors Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzist theorize that a leader’s ability to empathize with and tuning into the feeling of others truly affects the brain chemistry of both leaders and their employees. In a sense, their brains become interconnected or one. This inter-connectivity effectively causes a “literal mirroring of the leader’s feelings and actions.”
A couple of last points on how I would define successful leadership --- leadership is motivating, imaginative and authentic. Leadership does not exist in a vacuum. Effective leadership draws on the talents of each and every employee in the organization. Successful leaders think “outside the box” and are creative in their own right but more importantly, they are effective because leaders motivate and inspire the “rank and file” of the organization to be imaginative and innovative. The article Creativity and the Role of the Leader speaks to the responsibility of organizational leaders in shaping the creative process in their companies. Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire suggest that it is the role of leaders to understand that great ideas don’t necessarily come from executive leadership and with that knowledge, also knowing how to spawn great ideas within all ranks of a company. Leadership is having an ability to draw on the best ideas of all employees in the organization. This notion is again echoed in Heifetz and Laurie's, The Work of Leadership where the authors state that “Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.”
Examples of sustainable, servant and values-driven leaders
The memoir of Donald Perkins, former Chairman and CEO of Jewel Foods and father of Betsy Hill, a faculty member at the Lake Forest School of Management in Lake Forest, Illinois who wrote A Calm Temperament Expectant of Good with her father, begins with words of a unknown sixth-century Chinese philosopher: “A leader is best when people hardly know he exists, Not so good when people obey and acclaim him, Worse when they despise him, But of a good leader who talks little, When his work is done, His aims fulfilled, They will say We did it ourselves.” Leadership then is more than company profits and visions, it’s about helping others to be innovative and inventive --- getting things accomplished and if necessary, changing the status quo. While this memoir is more than just the business successes and achievements of Mr. Perkins during his tenure at Jewel, several chapters of the book are devoted to his business philosophy leading the supermarket retailer. When Don Perkins talks about Jewel’s business philosophy under his leadership, he refers to the “Jewel Concepts.” Here he reflects on his thoughts about leadership, which is “watching the horizon, requiring leaders to go out and meet the future with courageous new ideas.” The thoughts of the former Jewel executive ring strangely similar to recent articles I have read where successful leaders put themselves on a figurative “balcony” to oversee a bigger picture. What’s more, Mr. Perkins talks about “upsetting or turning upside down organizational charts” at Jewel, which he learned from his mentor at the company. The idea of turning organizational charts upside down refers to a “first assistant” philosophy in that each manager thinks of themselves not as a controlling boss of subordinates but as a “first assistant” to those reporting to him or to her. The challenge therefore, to those in leadership roles at Jewel is to find better ways to lead --- by helping, teaching, and listening to their employees with the consent of their employees. Not surprisingly, Don Perkins’ satisfaction with leadership come from helping others realize their full potential and to help Jewel employees get things done and be leaders and change agents in their own right. Don Perkins’ memoir is more than a story of a boy and man whose teaches us how to succeed, despite a broken home and personal hardships. It’s a lesson on authenticity, the development of a strong work ethic, leadership in business but most significant, his story is about an empathy and respect for others --- driving the former Jewel Chairman and CEO to respect and draw on the abilities, ambitions and determinations of each and every Jewel employee; and not being a “Machiavellian” authoritative figure that controls the thoughts and actions of his employees. Again, this belief in leveraging the talents of others is akin to the articles I have read on the role of leaders in tapping the creative minds of others to find innovative solutions to problems.
Another example of a leader who exemplifies these qualities and who I admire is Colleen Barrett, who is President Emerita of Southwest Airlines. She led the airline during a time when, in the face of financial losses and staff cutbacks in the airline industry since September 11, 2001, Ms. Barrett managed to display a resonant and resilient leadership philosophy that saw Southwest Airlines grow its operation significantly. It would have been very easy for Colleen to fall victim to a dissonant leadership approach given that economic success was critical to the airline’s success post-September 11th. In spite of this temptation and in light of these financial pressures, Colleen Barrett was able to build and sustain an organizational culture at the airline that is built around the concepts of teamwork and “esprit de corps”, focusing on great customer service and a pleasant work environment. Ms. Barrett has a heartfelt respect for each Southwest employee and values their contributions. This team spirit philosophy that Colleen Barrett instilled at the airline was easy for employees to adopt because they see her as genuine, and therefore, they could easily buy-in to her vision for the airline. Ms. Barrett’s passion for the airline runs deep and this passion is fed to every employee. It is this passion for employees and customers alike that keeps the airline a great place to work and a great airline to fly. Her down-home folksy style is refreshing. It encourages compassion and understanding, which is unique in the airline industry. She energizes everyone around her and it’s this energy and passion that keep moving the company forward. Colleen’s success among other things has been the development and implementation of a great organizational culture; a culture deeply rooted in the “Golden Rule."
Recent perspectives on leadership
Over the past several years, I have come to realize that leadership philosophies and/or styles do indeed change or evolve. This change can happen because of learned behaviors or experiences of the leader, (leadership is an ongoing learning activity) organizational cultures, leadership circumstances, etc… What I did not know however, is that corporate culture and leadership is and need to be closely interwoven for businesses to be competitive and ultimately, be successful. In the article, What Leaders Really Do, John Kotter believes it most important for “leaders to create a culture of leadership and in the end, crystallize that leadership centered philosophy by creating challenging opportunities for employees.” These challenges engage and motivate employees, which makes them more confident to take on more leadership responsibility.
In sum, leadership and leaders are many things --- adaptive, resonant, innovative, encouraging, and visionary. I think that MBA programs do an admirable job of training business students to be effective leaders and managers of people and stewards of the company’s bottom line. Business schools however do not teach the innate skills of authenticity, empathy, respect, and compassion, which are so essential to situational leadership in today’s business world. In the end, the success of sustainable. servant and values-driven business leaders will be measured not by their own innovative and adaptive solutions to business challenges but how creative they are in drawing out innovative and creative thought and ideas in their employees that address business opportunities and challenges. To this end, these leaders need to be genuine in that they do not let their egos diminish the contributions of or revel in the failures of their employees but rather, celebrate the achievements and success of the rank and file of the organization, which results in highly motivated, engaged and productive employees.