Executive Excellence, October 2004
By Omar Khan
To be an effective leader in a global economy that requires constant change, one must “turn pro,” battle resistance, and take personal responsibility for delivering results. Amateurs rise to challenges occasionally-when they feel like it, when crises hit, or when they are obliged to by circumstances.
Leadership professionals take personal responsibility for delivering results. They face and overcome fears of engagement and accountability to channel the energy required for real creativity and to reinvent what is possible. Leadership pros experience growth pangs and uncertainties, but also the glory of leadership moments that define personalities and organizations.
Here are ten strategies for becoming a leadership pro, one who can send resistance and frustration packing and meet the challenges ahead.
- HAVE AN UNYIELDING SENSE OF PRIORITY
We all succumb to resistance at some point to the downward spiral of abdication, lethargy and capitulation. What is essential is to decide what really matters and use that as your ‘firepower’ to make certain that resistance is overcome. Get the critical things done consistently and regularly, even “small act” by “small act,” and your leadership character will be forged.
- MAKE PEACE WITH OCCASIONAL MISERY
Leadership is an agonizing opportunity. Lives are at stake and fortunes are at stake. The direction of markets can be influenced, entire economies can be affected. For leaders, there are times of loneliness, times of uncertainty, times of just not knowing what to do. Duck the misery and you will unfortunately diminish the realities that gave rise to it. Agonize your way to the other side, grow right throughthe misery with the eyes of imagination and the passion of purpose, and you will know what a real breakthrough is. We have to appreciate “what is,” in order to effectively transcend it.
- BE HUNGRY FOR FEEDBACK
Great efforts inspire powerful reactions. Leaders understand this feedback is crucial to professionalism. Even negative feedback tells you your leadership is making an impact. Staying neutral or abdicating is worse than having a real failure. Leadership mastery and wisdom are the result of using effectively the feedback we inspire. It is also about eliciting it proactively and creatively “designing” from there.
- LOVE WHAT YOU DO
It is easy to be disciplined when we love what we do. Love helps us face and conquer resistance. Leaders love their chosen arena of contribution, they love their teams, they love the potential that together they have to endow the great achievements that beckon. Until leaders understand the love equation, they’re unlikely to succeed.With love and dedication comes the all-critical patience to push past the obstacles into the craftsmanship, insights and possibilities that are waiting to be realized. Khalil Gibran once said that “work is love made visible.” Amen!
- YOU NEED TO FOCUS AND DEMYSTIFY
Resistance gains power from a lack of focus, from frittered energy, from constant digressions, from confusion, from firing in all directions. Leaders become overwhelmed, their progress stunted. Quick wins become elusive, enthusiasm evaporates and confidence soon disappears.Resistance marshals its forces through bureaucracy, unnecessary complexity, endless administration, and other clouding and delaying tactics.
Leadership is about “boring consistency” as James McNerney of 3M says. It’s about crystal clear, passionate focus that dispels the fog. It is also about the essential simplicity that preserves energy, and amplifies and channels it for maximum impact, value and fun. Use simplicity ruthlessly to remove anything that can blunt the power of your focus time.
- CONFRONT WHAT YOU FIND, THEN TRANSFORM IT
Leaders realize that fear fades when it’s faced, not when it’s denied. Fear can be diminished by imaginative preparation and mental and emotional rehearsal.If, while playing golf, a blustering wind comes up, we have to play that wind as we golf. In a market downturn, we must be creative to evolve our value proposition in a way that is compelling and meaningful to our customers. As key talent is wooed away, we have to learn to make talent our first priority and we must nurture, discern, coach and develop it. We have to become success coaches par excellence for our organization and even for our allies in all kinds of situations.
In choppy waters, we must first ensure the vessel is sea-worthy. Then, we have to steady the vessel, calm the passengers…and perhaps even the sea.
- BE COMMITTED TO THE CRAFT, ASK FOR HELP, DON’T SHOW OFF
Leadership is an art form and its craft comes first. Leadership must interact with the goal we are trying to achieve. Ego must be put aside.If we are really committed to a larger cause and vision, we’ll ask for help from everyone we can at every level. We’ll want all possible intelligence and talent and energy galvanized to make our aspiration real. Resistance-junkies, instead, make themselves the point and seek to cast themselves as heroes. Hence they don’t listen and they shut passion down in others. Leaders whose energy goes into performance will always outperform resistance-junkies, as they will draw from an entire value network of talent and an entire lattice-work of energy and dedication.
- GIVE YOURSELF AWAY
Because leadership is fundamentally the ultimate contribution and act of service, frustrations and impediments matter. They let us know when resistance has interfered, when we have settled for too little, when our ego got in the way, when we didn’t prepare fully, and in what ways we’re not yet ready.Good or bad, leaders have one perennial commitment: To make a situation better, to add value to it. The real sensei or teacher will be back tomorrow, ready to move us all forward with them. As a leader dials down his or her ego and finds the way to mastery, fear fades (we harness its energy productively!), excellence crescendos and creation reaches new levels of power and meaning.
When we are willing to “give ourselves away,” and to give ourselves completely to our vision and the people who are working with us to manifest it-only then do we fully discover who we are and all that we can be.
- DESPITE THE ADVERSITY, DO THE JOB AT HAND
The only way to improve tomorrow, leaders know, is to do today’s work superbly well. Someone lets us down, a team-member doesn’t perform, a boss undervalues us, the market spasms due to factors totally outside our control, or there is a distracting camera flash just as we are making that critical point. Fury, exasperation, anger, momentary despair are human, perhaps even inevitable. Vent them, express them, but then use them to recommit to what needs to be done: that’s the “leadership moment.”An amateur may jump up and down in impotent fury, while a Lance Armstrong or a Yo Yo Ma recomposes himself and maintains sovereignty of the moment by mastering his own sense of self and purpose.
- RE-INVENT YOURSELF CONSTANTLY
Finally, a leader’s life is abundant with multi-faceted roles. Leaders serve value. They serve the spirit of growth, which can be converted into shareholder value and profits. That spirit, that inspiration, that value, may call us to many roles and many opportunities in our leadership life. Each role helps us become someone new, integrating our past, while making room for our future.
Along the way, if the leader embodies the ten commitments and practices that I’ve just outlined, he or she becomes liberated and can channel energy into creativity and connection rather than into an endless battle with resistance.
When resistance is deprived of kindling, deprived of energy that is now redirected to passionate innovation, it surrenders-at least in the larger areas of that leader’s life. That liberated energy can then help the leader re-imagine, re-invent and recreate in powerfully transformational ways that can redefine value for everyone.
During these troubled times, leaders can use these ten practices to meet the challenges ahead and to help us design futures that glitter with creative and productive potential.