The name says it all: A leader’s role is to “lead”, that is, point the followers to clear goals and show them the direction to get to those goals. The “hygiene factor” in any leadership is to avoid any qualities that would confuse followers, make them misunderstand the goals and work towards something different.
First and foremost among the basic qualities is character and integrity. If a leader does not mean what he or she says and changes his or her mind arbitrarily, that person immediately loses the trust of the followers. When that happens, it is an uphill climb to get back the support of the followers for any new initiative. Integrity and trust take a long time to build through real-life actions (not just talk) and can be easily destroyed in one moment of stupidity, carelessness or thoughtlessness.
This also implies personal responsibility. A good leader must “own” the decisions that he or she makes and take the responsibility for any negative outcome of those decisions instead of finding scapegoats and blaming people for it. Again, this is “leading”. The leader is out in the front ranks and, if he or she fails, gets hit first like the captain going down with the ship or the coach getting fired for the team’s poor performance. Unfortunately in business, sometimes, poor leaders get huge compensation packages even after running the company into the ground.
Integrity is very necessary in ensuring that the success of the organization is paramount for the leadership. There is always a conflict between the personal and professional lives of the executive. There are key decisions that affect the lives of perhaps hundreds or thousands of employees. When a leader makes a decision, the decision has to be made with the best interests of the organization and its stakeholders – and the character of the person making the decision is the one which prevents bad influences from creeping in.
Many supposed basic qualities tread a fine line. For example, a leader can be fearless, but could also be foolhardy. A leader may be honest, but also very insensitive. A leader may be friendly, but procrastinates in firing bad performers. Hence the real fundamental quality is to identify where the line crosses over – How to make an amalgam of qualities that will work towards the success of the organization and its stakeholders. There is no single recipe for this – a leader must spend the time to dig deep into his or her character and organizational needs and come up with right set of guidelines, principles and ethical standards.
“Leading” is not a task in isolation. It is not just enough to pick any goals and start running towards it. The goals must make sense for the success of the organization. The goals may also evolve based on the changing needs of the stakeholders within the organization. For example, a petrochemical company in mid 20th century may just have had profit as its sole objective. Today, its stated goals may include a social responsibility towards the environment while maintaining profitability.
This means that leaders should be listening while leading. In the above example, it was listening to the people residing in the locality affected by the company. But leaders need to listen to all kinds of sources – customers, competitors, employees, directors, shareholders, and media. This will help leadership continuously re-align and clarify goals.
Re-aligning goals is a fine balance. If done too often, it confuses and enervates people. When done infrequently, it makes the organization dogmatic. The real leader has to be clear-headed about why and when re-alignment should be done. Decisions have to be communicated to all the stakeholders. The fundamental qualities here is “due process” meaning that the executive has the answers to “Did you think this through and consider all causes and eventualities?” and “Is the final decision the best possible solution in light of all available information?”
What about the direction or road to the goals? In business, the straight or narrow path is not so easy to find in the first place. The leader’s role is to “discover and simplify”. Identify simple solutions that employees can easily understand and practice, instead of having them jump through hoops.
Once the direction is set, the next step for the leader is to remove the obstacles from the way of the employees. Providing employees the best support possible in terms of training, systems and simple processes that make work easy and enhance the quality for the customer is direction-setting.
The tough part is to keep clarifying the direction under changing circumstances. While the goals of the organization may see relatively less change, the tasks done by the organization will have to continuously improve.
Related: Read my article on Rapid Change.