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The Leadership Notebook: A Leadership Introduction

March/April, 2011

There are plenty of opinions about leadership in the business world. In fact, every day we hear terms like Market Leadership, a Leading provider of …, Leading through Innovation, Thought Leadership, and the list can go on and on. Everyone claims to be or certainly wants to be a leader of something. So what does leadership really mean, and how can we apply some principles of leadership to improve our business performance, become even more competitive and add value to our organizations?

Welcome to the Leadership Notebook, a forum to bring you ideas and hopefully provoke your own thoughts on what leadership means to you, your team, or your organization. Most importantly though, we need to apply what we know about leadership through daily action and interface. Each personal interaction then becomes an opportunity to practice your leadership skills and demonstrate your leadership ability.

Leadership on a personal level is the ability to influence other people to achieve a common goal. A simple question can indicate if you are leading on a personal level: Do you have followers? It also makes the often sought after distinction between managing and leading much easier to understand. Leaders have influence because people want or choose to follow them. Managers have influence because people have to follow their orders.

What makes us want to follow a leader? Is it something tangible, or is it just a feeling? Can anyone be a leader, or do leaders have some natural ability that can’t be learned? Let’s consider only a few important characteristics and practices of a great leader that anyone can develop:

1. Vision: A strong leader has a vision of where to go or what to become. How to get there isn’t as important since there are numerous roads to any destination. Of course some paths are better than others, but there is normally some flexibility in how to get there once you know where you want to be. A clearly articulated vision allows the leader to quickly make important decisions, balance priorities, and keep focus on the main objectives.

2. Trust: People will rarely follow someone they don’t trust. If you can’t trust a person, then how do you know where that person is actually leading you? As humans, we all have a basic need for security, and trust lends an important element of security. This is especially true when the leader takes on a bold strategy, a risky project, or an initiative that will take a long time to complete. Trust is a key element for gaining support from any team member on any level of the organization.

3. Passion: We can recognize countless historical leaders that have led with great passion. Likewise, it is easy to become excited around a very passionate business leader because true passion is contagious and generates tremendous positive energy. Conversely, if you don’t believe in your mission as a leader, your team will very quickly sense your detachment and you will never rally them to success. You don’t see yourself as a passionate person? Then start with optimism, especially when you face obstacles. Demonstrate your belief in the objectives by keeping a tight and unwavering focus.

4. Commitment: What exactly is commitment? In practice it simply means that the leader is willing to engage as much or more than the team. This is especially important when facing obstacles or challenges. A great leader has to keep the energy high when difficulty is encountered. The leader has to be willing to demonstrate commitment with action, tenacity and endurance. But commitment isn’t about showing support by simply working longer or harder than your team. It is far more important that you identify the right activities and keep the team focused on making constant and measurable progress towards your objectives. Often, the leader’s greatest contribution comes from removing obstacles for the team.

5. Communication: Communication is perhaps the most over-discussed and under-practiced business concept of all time. It is actually ironic because everyone loves to talk about communication, but not too many people like to actually engage in meaningful communication on a daily basis. Great leaders understand and effectively use the power of communication. If you concentrate on making your vision clearly understood, providing regular feedback on where you actually are and providing direction on where you need to be, you are already well on your way. It is important to frequently share good news and also bad news so the team can enjoy small victories or make small adjustments to stay on track. In today’s world we have a wonderful variety of ways to communicate, (personal meetings, telephone, email, web-based meetings, to name just a few), so take advantage of all the tools available. However you choose to communicate, be consistent in your message, reinforcing your vision.

When we consider only these few basic characteristics, practices of a great leader and reflect on whether we actually practice them on a daily basis it’s easy to conclude that leadership is mostly about simple, daily behavior. It seems impossible to keep our leadership skills sharp amidst the daily routines, problems, and mountain of work that threatens to bury the average employee or manager today. We just don’t have time to be great leaders! To become the leader you want to be, embrace your daily routine as the ideal place to develop your leadership skills. Our daily work presents abundant opportunities to demonstrate our leadership ability. Take full advantage of each opportunity and soon you will have nurtured your own leadership characteristics into a seemingly natural ability to lead!

Michael Zakrzewski is an experienced executive leader. He is currently a V.P. at NSM a division of Festo.