The Shortest and No-Nonsense Definition of Leadership

From when I was working for Google, or those 10 values systems from Anheuser-Busch InBev, or leadership classes from my MBA course in Canada, or those Harvard Business School articles, the definition and the values regarding about leadership are different for each organization and culture. But in my work with Digital Transformation that taught me the shortest and no-nonsense meaning of a good leadership.

Starting with a simple question about who is an example of a good or bad leader for a person can yield emotional or fuzzy responses; or it usually defaults to family members or public figures as the source of inspiration for leadership. Honestly, nobody wants to have a boss or leader who is acting like a dad or grandma; nor we need to go crazy and replicate the horror stories of leadership from famous people such as Steve Jobs from Apple, even though it is believed that worked to create the beloved Apple products. Nor we want to have a boss who is acting like a politician or a slave master.

In my early years of career, I'd read HBR (Harvard Business Review) articles to look for the source of truth about leadership. Making the quick search about leadership style, you can find a lot of new articles and even quiz to discover your style. I think they are fun to read just like my personality test and sometimes, like my horoscope. I don't think they are totally useless; instead, they actually provide some framework for people to give words for their behavior and once you can vocalize what you like to do as a leader, then you can find out more about it or even change. Unfortunately, reading those well written articles and trying to apply for real world problem is a big issue. It is not that we read something online and we will be able to experience and apply that knowledge immediately.

Nor we are facing a difficult people or business problem and by knowing those leadership styles, thing will magically be easier to solve. Actually, the true leadership test for people is when we are facing great danger or issues. Take a look at these two scenarios that will illustrate that not all problems will reveal what a good leader is:

Scenario A:

John Doe is an executive of a software company, it is the end of the year and his call center department is having issue in allocating vacation and holiday times for the employees. In that period of the year, there is a lot of customer support that must be provided to the users and he cannot risk the business by giving vacation to everybody. On the other hand, employees are trying to maximize their interests in taking a break for the holidays season.

Scenario B:

Borrowing John Doe from the Scenario A, in this scenario, John is facing a big threat from a start-up that is gaining market share and increasing revenue in a way that threatens his company survival. Based on the available data, he must make tough decisions about the business. He may have to decide to launch new products or kill off products. Consequently, he may have to "streamline" the operations to run his company (that means laying off people or "cutting the fat") to reallocate the resources he has to projects and departments that have a better chance to fight the competition.

Based on those two scenarios, you would conclude that one of those scenario will really test John's leadership; therefore, revealing if he is actually a good leader or a bad one. When we hear words like "to decide", "tough calls", or "threats", we tend to imagine a big boss making well thought out decisions in order to resolve the pressing issue. We also tend to link the leadership ability based on the importance of the problem to the business. For instance, if a person is dealing with a bigger dollar problem, and another one is dealing with a non-tangible issue, we tend to think that the former is more of a leader than the latter. Is it really the case?

I was discussing with other senior executives about a vortex of problems that another executive of the firm was having.  We were trying to assess and evaluate what was happening. At the end, I brought the question if that executive was a good leader. At the end, the other executives and I concluded that department was having issues because it lacked a clear vision and path of what and how that department needed to achieve and in which way - it lacked OKRs, KPIs, whatever the success metrics and methodology you can think of; therefore, it was hard for that team to know how to prioritize and even get things done. Instead, employees were doing things ad-hoc, always in the last minute because of the changing goals and lack of objectivity from their leader. Those ad-hoc activities wasted a lot of people's time since when they start a work, they would have to do it again because someone changed their mind. For employees, not only that is viewed as a waste of time, but for some, that meant more work and long hours in the office sapping morale and creating issues among the lower ranks.

Now, if the executive could provide clear metrics of success, convince that those metrics are important for the company and show the path of how the team can achieve those goals, the employees would be able to plan better, allocate their resources more in line of the business objectives and become more enthused about their job. We concluded that the ability to provide a clear Vision-Path was essential for an executive to become a good leader.

But only having vision-path, it is not enough to get things done. Some leaders are clearly inspirational and also visionary. Take an example of Elon Musk. He is a well known visionary specially for bold high tech endeavors such as Tesla, Boring and Space X. He is also well known to work a lot and even sleeping in the factory for Tesla when they were going through manufacturing hell - although he also has some other less flattering behaviors but that is for another blog post. The fact that he is able to have clear vision and also push his company and employees to execute on his vision is a clear indication of strong leadership; therefore, providing the vision but also inspiring your employees, business partners and customers to rally and push forward the vision is another skillset and experience required for a good leadership.

At the end, in that meeting, we realized that a strong leader has to be able to provide:

  • Clear Vision-Path
  • Ability to inspire and manage the team to execute on that Vision-Path

That was the shortest, no-nonsense and realistic definition of a good leader. No matter what is your leadership style, if you are not able to set clear goals and also making it happen, nothing is going to matter in the business setting.

Going back to the scenarios A and B, it is not the size of the issue that defines who is a leader or not but how that person frames the issues in a way to provide clarity and path to achievement. In Scenario A, John can show how good leader he is as long as he can provide a clear vision of what he needs from his team. In that case, he could appeal to the vision that satisfied customers specially in holiday seasons means a lot to those people who rely on his services; therefore, employees are not working for the sake of filing the holidays working slots but their work is really meaningful and important for the satisfaction of the clients. Then, he can leverage clear processes and rules to decide who should stay or not during the holiday seasons for work. For Scenario B, even though more obvious, he really needs to provide a clear vision and in that vision, a clear sense of urgency so he can rally his team to fight for the survival of the company.

In both cases, we can definitely see that our short and no-nonsense leadership definition can really make a difference no matter what is your preferred leadership style based on quiz or articles about leadership. You should test that definition. Let me know what your thoughts are!

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