What is Leadership?

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What do effective leaders actually do?

There have people who have the title of leader, but they are not leaders. There are people who don’t have a title, but they are leaders. What is it that makes a person into a leader?

There are 5 levels of leadership

…paraphrased by me, from the work of John Maxwell

  1. Position – poor leader – people follow you because you have the title (they give the bare minimum effort)
  2. Position + Liking – ineffective leader – people like you. They make a small effort because there is a relationship with you as a person.
  3. Attitude of Service – effective leader – people see that you have a vision and they want to be part of that vision. They see that you work to help them achieve the vision. They give more.
  4. People Developer – inspiring leader – people grow faster on your team under your leadership. Great people know that working with you will be great for them and their careers. They welcome the challenges and know that you care about them.
  5. Respect – transformational leader – You’ve been at level 4 for 20 years and it is known throughout the industry that you have made people and teams better. Your reputation is an inspiration to people.

In order to move up to the higher levels of leadership, an effective leader must do 4 things well.

What is Leadership?

An effective leader is a person who:

  1. Creates an Inspiring Vision.
  2. Motivates People towards the Vision.
  3. Executes on the Vision.
  4. Builds a team to Achieve the Vision.

1. Creates an Inspiring Vision

If we know where we are going, it is easier to get there. If everyone can see the vision, then everyone can help. If only the leader knows the vision, nobody else knows how to make progress.

In mountaineering, a vision might be “we will climb to the summit of Pedraforca and return safely”. JFK’s vision for space exploration was “we will place a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the end of this decade”. Nike’s vision was “beat Adidas”.

Vision provides direction. A leader must have a vision. Vision allows each person to know what actions help and what actions will not help achieve the vision. This requires imagination to envision a possible future and make it clear. A compelling vision is one that people can see, feel and understand what it will look like when they get there.

“In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are.” Arnold H. Glasgow

2. Motivates People towards the Vision

A compelling vision provides the foundation for leadership. Now, a leader must understand human motivation. What motivates someone to give their best work?

According to Daniel Pink, it is autonomy, mastery and purpose that provide motivation. The work itself may provide intrinsic, extrinsic or transcendental motivation to different people. Theory X and Theory Y from the 1960s define two contrasting approaches: Theory X supposes that workers have little ambition and require hands-on direct enforcement style management. Theory Y supposes that workers are highly motivated and are working to “better themselves as people”. Victor Frankl and today Tony Robbins would say that everybody has 6 emotional needs that must be satisfied: Safety, Risk, Connection, Significance, Contribution and Growth. Kouzes and Posner in their work The Leadership Challenge identify: Honesty, Competence, Forward Looking and Inspiring as the traits that get the best out of your team.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

3. Executes on the Vision

Execution is keeping the daily activity going, and keeping the ship heading in the right direction.

To do this, team members need performance goals that are linked to the team’s overall vision. KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are the usual way of doing this.

The head of Sequoia capital told me in an interview years ago: “There are only three reasons why an employee doesn’t achieve their KPI plan: 1) they don’t know their plan 2) they don’t have the resources to achieve their plan or 3) they aren’t motivated.” Sequoia’s view is that it is the leaders job to ensure each person understands their plan, has the resources to achieve their plan and maintains daily motivation to do the work.

“Sustained great results depend upon building a culture full of self-disciplined people who take disciplined action.” Jim Collins

4. Builds a Team to Achieve the Vision

There are three aspects: Attract great people, Develop people and Form a team.

Attracting great people: How do you recognise great people? The book Who by Brad Smart is the best resource on identifying and attracting A-player talent to your team. Past performance is the only guide to future performance (not interviews, nor hypothetical explanations of what they would do). Where do you find great people? Not in job adverts. Not waiting for your call. They are already out there doing a great job. You have to find them where they are.

To develop people, a leader will then ensure that team members have the necessary skills and abilities to do their job and achieve the vision. They give and receive feedback regularly, and coach people to improve performance.

A team is more than a collection of individuals. To develop a team, leaders must understand team dynamics. Two powerful models of team development are: Belbin’s Team Roles approach, and Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing theory.

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Jack Welch

Conor Neill’s TEDx talk: Who would you bet on?

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it no real success is possible” Dwight D Eisenhower

This talk from 2013 looks at the question of talent, leadership and character traits of A-players.

About Conor Neill

Conor Neill is the President of Vistage, Spain and a Professor at IESE Business School. His mission is to improve the effectiveness and enhance the lives of CEOs and key executives.

3 comments

  1. Great post! I agree with you. A vision is important to achieve a desired goal in life.

    1. No vision = blind 😉

  2. […] you liked this post, you will also enjoy the posts What is Leadership? and What is […]

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