Look within for leadership qualities

LAST week I was discussing with a client, a senior manager in a software development company, the global issues the company faced. He expressed his frustration at what the executive team was doing to solve the organisation’s dilemmas.

“The problem is,” my client said, “that the leaders of this company don’t really have a handle on the grass-roots issues we have to deal with here at the coal face.”

His state of mind is not uncommon. In fact, it reflects a mindset of many employees in companies large and small. The mindset that waits for others to come up with the answers. The mindset that thinks the leaders are the ones at the top of the organisation. Unfor-tunately, his mindset won’t help the company solve its problems, or his own.

I asked him to consider what he meant by the word “leader”. Who were the real leaders in his organisation? Were they the same people that were in the executive team? After giving it some thought, he replied that while some of the executive team exhibited leadership qualities, there were scores of examples of leaders throughout the organisation who didn’t hold a formal management or leadership title. He even nominated some of his most junior employees.

The world needs more leaders. A bold statement, but true. Many would rise against this and cry: “If we had more leaders, who would do the work?” To those I reply – redefine what you think leadership is.

And then I’d refine my statement and say, “the world needs more real leaders”. And it does. We’re crying out for them. And not just at the top of organisations, politics or society, either. That’s the traditional home of leaders, by the old definition. But it goes deeper than that. What the world is asking for is more people who think like leaders, rather than more people at the top of the pile.

Leadership is one of the hottest topics in business and management circles, and has been for the past 20 or so years. Why? It’s no coinci-dence that the past 20 years also have been among the most tumultuous for the world of business – massive change in all respects. And with change comes instability, and with instability comes the need for direction. The need for leadership. The problem is, we’re asking other people for the answers – those in power. It’s a big ask because they, understandably, don’t have all the answers.

Let me suggest an alternative. Look for direction not from others, but from within yourself. Make yourself a leader and create your own answers. It’s a harder choice to make than relying on others for answers, but it’s one that offers better long-term solutions.

If you’ve ever attended a leadership development program, it’s likely that you’ve been given a list of competencies that leaders exhibit, for example to “bring out the best in others” and “communicate a powerful vision” and so on. Things leaders do. The “what to do” manual of leadership.

The implied message is that if you do these things, then you will be a great leader.

Or will you? Are great leaders great simply because of what they do? No. Great leaders effect great change because of something more profound. Their impact is a result of a deeper conviction.

Where does this deeper conviction come from? How do they get it? Can it be taught? How does one acquire “a deeper conviction?” Is the ability to lead available only to a select few, or to all of us?

And what do we mean by “lead”, anyway? Most people associate “leadership” with the leading of men – being at the pointy end of a team of people. But what about leading edge thinking, or leading by example? And is it only people who can be leaders, or can teams lead? Can companies be leaders? What about ideas in their own right?

The point is, leadership is not a cut and dried concept. We need to challenge our traditional ideas of what leadership means, at the macro and micro levels.

Our ability to lead is closely linked to our level of success. To lead is to see a way forward, to forge a new path that can take us to what we want. If we cannot see what will make us happy and successful, and we do not take the necessary action, we will be lead somewhere else by someone or something else.

If this column has got you thinking about how these concepts apply to you, stay tuned. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the concept of leadership in greater detail.

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