Where does great leadership begin? It’s obviously more than just experience, education, mentorship, inspiration, and vision. You need to look deeper than that and start with your very core. I am proud to have mentored some very successful CEOs, up-and-coming CEOs, and budding entrepreneurs, but I did this by looking inwardly too. Presented here are a few secrets from a lifetime of leading.
Employees are happier and more productive when their leaders radiate energy – and energy is far more important than vision and strategy. Energy comes from a sense of purpose, not a false sense of confidence. When leaders display “purposeful” behaviors in how they communicate, push people to their limits, and even demand the near impossible, the outcome is a team of more satisfied, fulfilled, and committed employees who are willing to go the extra mile.
Great leaders don’t push people with limited short-termism, instead demanding only the best within the context of the organization’s purpose. Amazon is living proof of this. Over 23 years, it has grown into one of the largest internet retailers in the world. Today, Amazon remains relevant by keeping companies up at night thinking about which industry it is going to disrupt next. This is not a short-term minded company that simply gets lucky time and again. Under the leadership of Jeff Bezos, Amazon is poised to take on totally unexpected and wicked challenges with a long-term strategic view.
Employees respond better to leaders who care not just about their next quarter earnings, but also about their wider community and society; leaders who have strong views of what the right thing to do is and who manage that with a deep sense of the collective aspirations of the company; leaders who behave with a “living” purpose. Bezos, for example, manages Wall Street and doesn’t let Wall Street manage him. Instead, he focuses on relentless growth along with the necessary inputs or actions required to deliver those objectives – purpose.
How do we invest in the next generation of purposeful leaders? Let’s start with the assumption that it is impossible to mold all individuals into a uniform model of morals and ethics, and that we need to accept that there is not one single type of individual. The idea is not to have the perfect fit between individuals and organizations, but to support emerging leaders in navigating and negotiating the differences. Purposeful leadership goes hand in hand with inspirational qualities, including the ability (either born or acquired) for leaders to commit to a cause, to better themselves and the team, and to live their truest lives.
In my experience, the ability to lead purposefully comes down to focusing on three commitments that have a massive impact on teams, organizations, and communities – and drive greater competitive engagement, differentiation, revenue, and profits. To compound this, the following points feature sidebars that extract from a recent executive 360-degree feedback report of myself from October 2017 prepared by an external consulting firm, which highlights my strengths and weaknesses. I am not suggesting that everyone should practice the same behaviors; they are included here purely for illustration or for your amusement, but most importantly, for transparency.
Know, admit, and accept who you are.
You can’t be everything to everyone. If you try to make everyone happy, you will never achieve anything in life. You need to know your weaknesses and turn them into your strengths, rather than trying to overcome them or pretending they don’t exist. Deep down, you are that person, and your weaknesses are a part of you. Wear that persona on your sleeve.
Leaders need authenticity; it needs to be seen in their actions. They shouldn’t speak through PR representatives or live a different life than what the public sees. Jeff Bezos’s true self was illustrated in his stewardship of The Washington Post and his personal handling of the return of Jason Rezaian, a Post reporter who was imprisoned in Iran for 544 days. Following Rezaian’s release, Bezos quietly met the reporter and his family in Germany to accompany them back to the US on his private jet. The event was quiet and tasteful – not an overhyped PR stunt. While Bezos has done many things that are not considered popular at Amazon, these are decisions that need to be made and, at the end of the day, his executives and managers respect him for making them.
/ Idris’s Feedback:
“[Your] patterns suggest you are goal-driven and achievement-oriented, and are likely to make decisions with urgency and timeliness, even when those decisions may not be ‘popular’ with others. You are also able to think unconventionally to create new and unique solutions to business problems. Many of your profile scores are typical of a person with very strong entrepreneurial leadership skills, and as noted earlier, this is clearly a key strength of yours.”
Shine your light on a chosen few.
Jack Welch’s theory on talent management is well read and practiced by a generation of managers. The theory is that, on any given team, approximately 20% of the people are “A” players. These are the superstars: the cornerstones of an organization that others rely on to carry the mission forward. The next group is the “B” players, which comprises about 70% of any organization. These team members do the majority of the work and are competent and valuable. Many “B” players want to rise to “A,” and they need a path to get there. The remaining 10% are the “C” players, who take up a lot of time and energy, with no rewards.
My approach to talent management is somewhat similar. First, you need to know who your stars are. The stars should not come from a particular experience level, as this traditional model puts too much weight on those with 10 or 20 years of experience, which is too limiting. These stars should not only be the best at what they do; they should also be able to conduct and radiate positive energy across the organization. A lone high performer is not enough. Stars should be naturals in directing their emotions, creativity, mental agility, thoughtfulness, empathy, efforts, and activities to achieve extraordinary results. Stars are the people who not only utilize intellectual power, but also organizational energy to achieve higher performance – to the extent that their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral forces align constructively with the organization’s vision, purpose, and objectives. The primary job of purposeful leaders is to generate, release, and maintain the potential energy within the core of these stars and, by extension, the rest of the organization.
Today, organizations need to breed cross-generational leadership. The definition of “A” players (or what I simply call “stars”) should come from all levels of the organization. Any successful company needs leaders from all levels. That is why I pick 5% of leaders from all levels and turn them into intellectual energizers. As a purposeful leader, your commitment is to find them and shine more light on them.
/ Idris’s Feedback:
“From a team leadership perspective, many of the raters commented on the value you bring as a teacher and mentor. Your market and knowledge, coupled with your strong passion for what you do, was described by many as being ‘energizing’ for your team. As one person noted, listening to you ‘is like taking a mini MBA course.’ People also commented on your ‘obsession’ for high-quality work, and your strong drive to push your team to go beyond ‘good’ to ‘great.’”
Every superhero has flaws. Become the best by not being perfect.
Don’t waste time on your weaknesses; maximize your strengths instead. Find people that complement you, cover for your weaknesses, and focus on leveraging your strengths. Many people have so-called “flaws,” with internal dialogues such as, “I’m an introvert and my leadership potential is limited,” or “I cannot handle any uncertainty and I feel too uncomfortable with not having a plan.” For the first one, you can turn it into a valuable strength by showing others that you’re a great listener and always taking the time to digest and observe before making any decisions. For the latter, your need to see a plan demonstrates that you are a methodological thinker and a solid leader. I have helped many people successfully turn their weaknesses into strengths; it is a matter of coaching and will. There is no easy way to classify a strength or weakness, and many leadership tests are oversimplifications of these characteristics. A lot depends on the larger strategic and cultural context and the particular life cycle of an organization. In the meantime, dig out your flaws and nourish them. Find a time and place to use them. Some people, for example, are more suitable for a startup environment and some are more suitable for administrative roles. Even within a startup, you need clock-builders and clock-watchers. If you know what the right place is for you to turn your weaknesses into your most powerful strengths, you are halfway to a very successful and happy career.
/ Idris’s Feedback:
“There are several patterns in your personality profile that are very consistent with the behavioral observations people commented on during the interviews, as well as some of your own self insights. Key among those patterns is a tendency to come across as intimidating, arrogant, and overreacting at times, taking assertive action without seeking input from others. A ‘self-reliant’ tendency is also present in your profile, suggesting you may at times overly promote your own ideas, and be dismissive of others’ inputs or contributions. […] People described you as having a low frustration index, noting that if you don’t respect a person’s ‘intellectual horsepower,’ you quickly lose respect for them. These observations are consistent with your self-insights, where you noted during our interview that your impatience is both a strength and a weakness, and that you don’t like working with mediocre people.”
Practice Makes (Im)Perfect
Everyone is unique, and there is no one-size- fits-all solution to becoming a more purposeful leader. Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk – you can try and model yourself after these leaders, but it won’t be genuine. Like these famous leaders, I have practiced becoming a leader daily and have worked through my own self-discoveries, grappled with my weaknesses, and ultimately arrived in my role in my own unique way. I may not be perfect, but that was never the point. There is no magic formula to copy, either. The only thing that can be replicated is the willingness to take the journey. Are you ready to start yours?