The term “successful leader” can be confusing as there isn’t one defined way to view success; it’s a relative term and each person has their own definition. In broad strokes there are some tenants of success that we can link to leadership; in today’s blog we’ll explore these tenants, identifying them to understand how present they are in your career.
When we think of success it is often linked to a leaders’ prominence. How often are they quoted in the media? Is she/he considered an authority on something? How many people know who he/she is? In a public sense this can be one way to identify a business or thought leader, but it also defines a range of other leaders we often “see” (political leaders, etc.). These leaders may not espouse all the attributes we’d like to build in ourselves as leaders. While identifiable capabilities, competence and a level of subject matter expertise is a component of leadership, these things do not ensure a leader is someone whom you’d like to work with or for. In my coaching practice I work with many professionals who struggle against societies acceptance of a well-spoken leader as being knowledgeable or an authority, when what they exercise is confidence and the ability to speak publicly in a competent way (but are not necessarily in possession of all the best ideas or expertise). Does successful leadership reside in your ability to capture an audience? Yes, there is leadership currency in that. Do you have to be the loudest voice in the room to capture an audience? No you don’t. What you do have to be is aware and committed to your end goal, and understand through that commitment that it will be necessary to share with others your expertise, vision or plan. If you are looking for an example Rosa Parks comes to mind; she was not a public speaker, in fact history has documented her as an introvert. However, she chose to exercise her voice in an authentic way when it mattered and in doing so gave a voice to millions of others.
This brings us to another very important aspect of leadership. Believing in something that is bigger then yourself and helping others to believe in it too. Here as well there are variances; what one person believes in may be disagreeable to another so there needs to be a base-line understanding on what will be of importance to others. When Steve Jobs set out to build a computer it was not because the world didn’t have computers, he didn’t like the computers on offer. He had a vision for how computers could be constructed to be more affordable and usable by the average person. This was important to him, and in the end the world followed Steve Jobs for his bravery (or audacity, however you choose to look at it) to “put a dent in the universe”. Here we find an individual who believed in something that we could not imagine our world without today (smart phones, tablets, etc.). If these technologies disappeared without warning there would be potential for a negative global economic impact. However, had the Apple-based technologies not been invented it the first place it is highly likely humanity would have continued along just fine. There wasn’t the “moral imperative” in creating personal productivity products that we see in the Rosa Parks example, and yet what is as present in the Steve Jobs example (compared to Rosa Parks) is belief and the ability to enable others to believe in a vision that has (as it turned out) changed much in our society today. By the way, Jobs is another leader history has tagged as an introvert.
Success has also been defined in terms of earning potential (or revenue potential for an organization). This is one we hear a lot about in the media and is the focus of much attention. It is what “targets and margins” are made of and is a quantifiable “number” that is easy to articulate (if not to achieve). Many of us have personal goals in this area, whether it is to buy a new car, earn a six-figure salary or retire well it’s something that on a basic level most people understand. However, does being rich (or running a company in a way that makes it rich) mean you are successful? We’ve all seen evidence to the contrary (lottery winners are an example – being rich doesn’t automatically equate to life-long happiness). When I work with clients who are early in their careers many are shocked to discover that just because a company is successful (fiscally solvent, dependable for long-term employment, etc.) doesn’t mean it will offer a positive work experience. Many of us make this mistake, assuming that if a company is “well run” it must then also treat it’s workforce well. Successful leaders are those who can ensure that, for the majority of employees, both are present; a workplace that offers a positive work experience within a company that achieves a good measure of financial success. There are a great many studies devoted to the topic of healthy workplace practices equating to higher productivity from staff, which is a component of successful companies; this is no surprise. What is harder to articulate, drive and imbue in company culture are strong leadership practices that enable a positive working environment through ethics. Leaders who champion fair and ethical practices are present in many of our workplaces, but if their organization doesn’t support these practices (bottom up and top down), then the workforce as a whole will not consistently have those positive workplace experiences that drive employees to go the extra mile. We’ve seen examples of what can happen when the balance between ethics and the drive to succeed financially is not present; Enron and other examples are far too prevalent but they offer emerging and current leaders the opportunity to understand why the balance is important and how dependent their workforces (and society) are on sound operating practices.
In looking at the broad tenants of successful leaders we can see that they are the individuals who believe in a vision and are able to articulate it in a meaningful way enabling others to contribute. Successful leaders are able to foster and reinforce fair and ethical practices in their organizations that lead to an organizational culture that supports positive work experiences. Successful leaders are those who lead by example and lend their strong voice when it is important to do so (even if it is not comfortable for them to do). Leadership is always a risk; whether you are in a leadership role within an organization or practicing leadership without the title as a way to support others in your workplace and community it requires you to “put yourself out there”. Another important aspect of successful leaders is that they are not perfect, but they are committed to the creation of something that is bigger then themselves, following an iterative process that makes them more capable to achieve it over time.