- Introduction to Leadership
- What Makes a Leader?
- Big Name Leaders
- Bad Managers
- Additional Resources
Michael Jordan, Bill Gates and Barack Obama. What do these three very different men have in common? They are all brilliant leaders. They inspire those around them to work harder, go farther and, most importantly, believe in the cause. These are the goals that every good leader should be aiming for, particularly in the world of business. After all, what hope does any business have without good leadership?
But becoming a leader isn't easy. It takes time, practice, and quite a bit of luck. Not everyone can be a leader. If you think you're suited to the job, perhaps you should take a look at our helpful guide to the tips and tricks of leadership, and get an idea of what you're getting yourself into.
What you'll learn
This course is a resource for anybody looking to learn about what it takes to be a good leader, whether it's in the classroom, the board room, or the family living room. The major topics we'll cover are:
- The traits of a successful leader;
- Lessons to learn from legendary CEOs;
- What bad managers are good for;
- Staying ethical when you have power, and the consequences of unethical business;
- Organizing and motivating your team; and,
- Expressing yourself clearly and effectively.
There has been quite a bit of debate over the centuries about what, exactly, makes a leader. Is it an inborn quality, inherited through your genes like the color of your hair? Or is it something that can be taught, learned and improved upon throughout a lifetime? That’s exactly the question Shelly Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke looked at when they wrote Leadership: do traits matter?, which concludes that, essentially, they do-but not as much as you’d think. While there are some hereditary qualities that can predispose somebody to becoming a leader, like drive (read: ambition and energy), intelligence and extroversion, and great leaders to tend to have certain qualities in common, you can’t write a formula for it. Every good manager handles things his or her own way, and it’s important to find a style that’s consistent with your own personal beliefs and capabilities.
One of the most famous schools of thought on what makes a good leader comes from the Marine Corp, which features a list of leadership traits that are essential to the continued functionality of our military. This list stresses traits useful to anyone in a leadership position, especially if he is also answering to a superior, including:
These traits are all fairly easy to maintain under normal circumstances. The real challenge comes when things don't go your way, and you're faced with a difficult situation. This can be something as small as misplacing an important document, or a true crisis like the company facing bankruptcy. John Baldoni's How a Good Leader Reacts to a Crisis provides a helpful and easy-to-understand guide for keeping your cool and maintaining your reputation in a tough situation. His advice is to take a moment to understand the problem, so that you can make an informed decision, and so that you can explain it to others. Once you've made your decision, act quickly, but don't get too attached to your plan of action. The situation could change at any moment, and you must be able to adapt. And remember: while it's nice for a leader to pitch in and get his hands dirty once in a while, your primary responsibility is to set a definite course of action and keep everybody on track.
Not all common leadership qualities are positive traits. It's quite common for CEOs and other business leaders to lack empathy, which is the quality that allows us to relate to other people. Without this trait, they are able to make hard decisions-like whether or not to downsize-without any qualms or hesitations, which can be a huge plus for your profit margin. However, as Jon Ronson explains in his Forbes.com interview Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs, lack of empathy is the hallmark trait of a psychopath. Because our capitalist system rewards those who look out for their own self-interest and profit over more moral choices with lower profit potential, a disproportionate number of CEOs have psychopathic tendencies. Jon is careful not to accuse all corporate leaders of full-out psychosis, but he does make a compelling argument for putting them somewhere on the spectrum, using the Robert Hare psychopath checklist. These are the sorts of leader role models you have to keep an eye on; emulation might not be such a good idea in these categories.
But like with any area of expertise, the best way to learn good leadership is still to look to the greats. These people come from all walks of life-athletes, politicians, musicians, authors-but some of the best examples come out of the corporate world, where success cannot come without great leadership. There have been thousands of amazing CEOs over the years, as exemplified in Jim Collins’ article for Fortune Magazine, The 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time, in which he reflects back on ten amazingly effective and cool-headed leaders in corporate American history. The highlights are plentiful, but here are just a few:
- Katharine Graham. This remarkable woman was content to live her life as a housewife, right up until her husband committed suicide. She took over his fledgling newspaper and ultimately made the Washington Post one of the most credible news sources in the country, going up against the US Government and President Nixon after the Watergate scandal.
- David Packard. Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, had some hair-brained ideas about customer service and The HP Way that made him an outcast in the business community. He was one of the first corporate leaders to prioritize his consumers' needs over those of his investors, which ultimately paid off for both.
- James Burke. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson's popular product Tylenol was sabotaged, which resulted in several customers dying of cyanide poisoning. Despite pressure to cover it up and ignore the problem, Burke master-minded the first ever product recall, costing himself near $100 million. Ultimately, his dedication to the safety of his customers proved lucrative, and Tylenol remains one of the most popular non-prescription pain medications on the market (check out a contemporary article on the topic from the TIME magazine archives).
Another great name in the history of CEOs is Lee Iacocca, who single-handedly saved Chrystler and turned it into a highly lucrative company. Lee’s success during a dark period in the history of the American economy is attributed largely to his leadership, which he happily talks about as it relates to modern society. Be sure to check out his Leadership Scorecard, which hits several key traits any leader should have, including creativity, charisma, courage and common sense. It is especially helpful if you're looking to hire other leader personalities for your company, because it gives you an easy way to evaluate their abilities.
If you’re looking for a more modern role model, though, look no further than Ursula Burns. This remarkable woman became the first ever African American female CEO of a major US corporation when she took over Xerox in 2009-a position she achieved through hard work, intelligence, and understanding the product she was working with. She’s been hailed as a master of the board room-a savvy leader who knows when to stick with it and when to cut her losses. Definitely a woman to take notes on.
Ultimately, the best way to make sure you don't turn into a bad manager, or hire one, is to avoid using leadership as a form of reward. As Tanveer Naseer explains in Becoming A Leader for All The Wrong Reasons, bad leaders come from promoting for the wrong reasons. A majority of people in corporate leadership positions never had any formal training, and many of them didn't even want the responsibility of management, but the promotion came anyway because they did their work well. To avoid this problem in your own company, make sure that everyone you put in a managerial position has had leadership training, and get some for yourself, too.
What not to do
As much as the greats can teach us about leadership, some things can only be learned from their opposite: the crappy managers who make you want to rip your hair out in frustration. A careful analysis of The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Managers, from CC Holland of Business Net, flags all the pitfalls of bad leadership. Major problem areas include the inability to prioritize, putting yourself before your team, offering advice where it is neither needed nor asked for, and ignoring your personal life while you focus singularly on your work-and expecting your employees to do the same. By creating a truly hostile and isolationist environment, you ensure that nothing gets done and nobody is happy.
If you don't fall into that category (and who does, really?), David Shedd of Business Insider offers The 25 Lies Crappy Business Leaders Tell Themselves, against which you can check your ego. Even seemingly obvious things like "I lead by example" and "we love our customers" might be a lie that's hurting your business, so it's important to rate yourself honestly, even if it means catching yourself in a lie.
The thin line
Sometimes, the line between good management and bad management can be so thin it's hardly even there at all. Philip Diab, of the Project Management Institute, offers up his thoughts on the topic with two insightful entries. In Ineffective Management or Smart Approach?, he notes that many schools of thought in the leadership world promote seemingly harsh or unreliable behavior, each backed up with a specific reasoning for its effectiveness. Philip outlines personalities like the abusive manager, who yells at his employees to motivate them; the moody manager, whose unpredictable nature forces employees to be more self-sufficient; and the lame duck manager, who consistently meets employee complaints with a shrug of his shoulders, claiming he has no power to change the situation so they all have to just live with it. While each of these methods may seem grounded in reasonable psychology, Philip ultimately concludes that these styles are ineffective and ought to be avoided at all costs.
In Can Great Leaders Be Bad Leaders?, he takes a slightly more ambiguous stance, asserting that some of the qualities of great leadership can also lead to catastrophes. To back his argument, he goes to the world of sports, citing Zinedine Zidane's loss of temper in the World Cup finals in 2006, where he was red-carded for head-butting an opposing player in the chest. Is Zidane a bad leader? Certainly not-he lead the team to World Cup victory in 1998, and is highly respected in the soccer world. But while his passion served him well in most situations, sometimes it got the better of him and turned him into a bad role model. Thus, Philip warns, this is a line that leaders have to tread carefully.
You can't win everything
Like it or not, bad management is here to stay. There will always be people in leadership positions who aren't cut out for the job, and there isn't a whole lot to be done about it. But as Scott Adams, author of the popular Dilbert comics, argues, bad management may be The Perfect Stimulus. After all, if all employees were happy and content under their bosses, who would ever venture out into the dangerous world on their own to start new companies?
The ambiguity of the term "ethics" makes it one of the stickiest issues in the business world. Is it ethical to maximize your profits so your investors get a return, or is it ethical to cut your prices so that your customers can afford your product? How does being ethical relate to your business model? What does it say about how you should treat your employees?
All of these questions have been rolling about for years, and though there are many attempted answers, none cover all of the bases. While everyone agrees that CEOs ought to be ethical, no one is exactly sure how to go about it. The best anyone can do is make choices that are in line with his or her own ethical code, and take personal responsibility for those choices. In an ethical business world, nobody makes the excuse, "I was just doing my job," because everybody is morally proud of the work they are doing. As Seth Godin explains in his short but sweet article No Such Thing as Business Ethics, the issue is simply too complicated otherwise, and there is no "right" solution.
No one can tell you what your ethical code as a leader ought to be, but there are definitely some questions you should ask yourself before deciding what's important to you. To evaluate yourself, take a look at Alaina Love's Three Integrity Questions for Leaders:
- Are my intentions clear? There's nothing worse than setting vague guidelines for employees and not following them yourself. You have to create a coherent company vision, and then pursue it by walking the talk, leading by example, and always taking responsibility for miscommunication.
- What are my motives? It's easy to get distracted by the bottom line in business. In order to maintain an ethical stance, focus on achieving a greater good rather than just trying to win. And don't wait for government regulation to push your company in a moral direction-take initiative on things like race and gender equality, which gives your business a good name.
- Do I act with integrity? When you make a deal, does your company follow through, or later try to negotiate a better one? Try to remember that actions speak louder than words. If your company gets a reputation for not following through, it will hurt you in the end.
There are tons of examples in corporate America of failed ethics, and usually it all comes down to a lack of emotional intelligence. That doesn't mean being smart; it means being empathetic, self-aware and comfortable in social situations, and always remembering to be nice to "the little people." In his article The Ethics of Emotional Intelligence, Gael O'Brien of Business Ethics Magazine explores how being ethical requires a great deal of emotional intelligence, and without it a CEO's reputation could flounder, citing former BP CEO Tony Hayward as evidence. The inability to relate to those working under you is a recipe for disaster, because you won't be able to understand what "ethical" even means to them, and you could walk right into a PR disaster. For Gael's guidelines on what "ethical" really means, see his article on UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
A more recent case of ethical failure in business is Rupert Murdoch's News of the World fiasco, which chronicles the famously unscrupulous man's use of outside hires to obtain information illegally while retaining plausible deniability. Essentially, Murdoch paid third-party hackers to break into personal computers and phones to steal private information, then claimed to know nothing about it. Regardless of what the legal outcome of the case might be, Murdoch is in for a ride when it comes to public opinion-a major problem when your company relies on readers. Read expert opinions on the subject with Rupert Murdoch and the Seeds of Moral Hazard from the Harvard Business School.
No matter how hard a leader works, he is only as good as his team. The whole purpose of leadership is to organize and direct a group, keeping everyone happy and productive. When things aren't going well, it's easy to get frustrated and start to blame members of your team for incompetency. But does the fault really lie with them, or with the system? Sometimes, no matter how talented and capable your staff is, they can't defeat a poorly organized corporate hierarchy, or break away from a company-wide creative rut to find their own innovations. On the flip side, a well-structured and streamlined company will allow even the most ordinary employees to excel in their field. Before you start blaming your employees for the poor numbers your team is getting, take a look at Bob Sutton's article Crappy People vs. Crappy Systems, in which he argues against the "crappy people" hiring theory and encourages leaders to look for breaks in the system instead.
Dealing with Crazies
Unfortunately, sometimes the problem does lie with the employee, and it falls to you to fix the situation. In most cases, the problem is fairly small-somebody is disorganized, or overly critical-and it can be handled with a little understanding and a frank conversation. John C. Maxwell has an entire series on these types of employees, with an article dedicated to each personality, including Slumped Susan, Fearful Fred and Grandstanding Gary. In each article, he explains the major strengths and weaknesses of the spotlighted personality, and gives a guideline for the conversation you should have with him or her.
There are, however, personalities that there's no dealing with delicately. These are the corporate crazies. They're set in their ways, they won't listen to reason, and they argue about everything. With this sort of personality, your best bet is to find what motivates them, and work out from there. Once you know what a crazy wants, you can influence them toward the behavior you want by helping them reach their goals. Dealing with Corporate Crazies by Mike Myatt explains the technique more in-depth, with an emphasis on finding common ground and always turning the other cheek, ending with a helpful reminder that when all else fails, you can always fire them.
Not everyone has the same leadership style, but there's some evidence that leaders who can relate to their employees on a personal level have more success motivating them. Take, for example, Jim Hopkins' article Is Friendship a Leadership Quality? By his own admission, Jim thought friendship had no place in the work environment-at least, not between bosses and their underlings. But after a lunch encounter with a previous employer, he changed his mind. A boss who cares about his employees enough to befriend them will earn trust where someone else might only get warm regard. People are more likely to help you when they think you genuinely care about them.
What's more, in order to be truly respected as a leader, you have to understand the mindset of those who follow you. That means spending some time in the trenches. Ask yourself:
- Why do followers follow? Most people follow causes and people that they believe in. If you want to be a good leader, you have to give your followers a reason to believe in you.
- How can you gain a follower's support? The same way he gains yours-through respect, honesty, and clarity. If you really want to win a follower over, allow him to participate in the process-trust him with a little power and give him something to take pride in.
- What are the benefits of good followers? It may seem obvious, but far too often followers are looked down upon. A good follower takes responsibility, gives his all and makes things happen-from behind the scenes. Without followers, even the best leader is nothing.
For more details on understanding followers, see The Art of Following: A Prerequisite of Effective Leadership by JK Allen. Once you can understand and relate to the people you work with, you will have a much easier time making things run smoothly within your team.
The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is one of the most important skills a leader can have. If you can't communicate, you aren't a leader-it's as simple as that. Your followers and employees need to understand what it is you want from them and how they can help, and the only way to ensure that is with great clarity, no matter what the topic.
It probably goes without saying that conversation markers like "so," "um," and "well…" don't make for brilliant conversation, and you've probably never heard a brilliant speech use the word "kinda." There's a reason for that. Indecisiveness kills your message, no matter what it is, by cluttering it up with unnecessary sounds and weakening words. Often we don't realize how challenging speech really is, because we do it so often without thinking, but a leader cannot afford that luxury. If you want to be a great communicator, you have to practice. Learn to articulate, organize your thoughts, and think about what you want to say carefully before you say it, because whatever you do announce is probably going to get repeated. Check out Chip Scholz's 3 Tips to Improve Clarity for more specific pointers on getting your message across.
But perhaps more important than the mechanics of speaking is the way you consider the person you're speaking to. People aren't purely rational beings. They have emotions, and sometimes they act on those emotions. Before you try to communicate, take a look at Forget the MBA. Managers Need to Study the Brain-an interview with Srinivasa Pillay, a psychiatrist and executive coach. Srinivasa argues that the high-stress manner in which many bosses communicate creates anxiety, which results in lower productivity rates. To reassure employees, leaders need to empathize with them, and demonstrate that they're looking at the problem through other people's perspectives as well as their own.
Additionally, it's important for leaders to admit when they are wrong. While traditional thinking may label this a weakness, there's some evidence that employees see it as a strength; when you can admit your mistakes, people are more likely to believe you when you tell the truth. Three Words Leaders Should Learn by Rosabeth Moss Kanter covers the subject.
No matter what business you're in, chances are you'll have to negotiate at some point, be it with a client, a customer, an employee, or even your own boss. If you want to be a good negotiator, you have to have all the communication skills we've already covered, but there are a few more things you have to remember.
Negotiation is about understanding what the other party wants, and finding a way to give it to them without giving up what you want. How to Manage Workplace Conflicts by Tanveer Naseer covers the issue with a charming anecdote about a cashier, who he witnessed defuse and solve a potentially disastrous confrontation with nothing but a smile and her willingness to listen. That last part is key-any successful negotiation starts with listening. If you come to the table with your emotions high, you won't be able to look at the issue objectively. Leave your assumptions and hurt feelings at home, and try to see past your opposition's bluster to the core of the problem.
For a more general guide to negotiation, take a look at Christina Lagorio's 7 Tips for Masterful Negotiating. She starts off with the same "listen before you speak" concept, but elaborates with embracing your fear (everybody's nervous before a negotiation!), doing your homework ahead of time, and being willing to walk away if no one can agree.
Leadership is a tough gig. If you think you're up for the challenge, we hope you keep our advice in mind. Remember: a leader is only as strong as his relationships. Take care of your followers and they will take care of you.
- Leadership Freak by Dan Rockwell – A blog dedicated to concise summations of the major issues facing leaders in today's society. In 300 words or less, Dan will teach you about building a following, finding order in chaos, or even just refueling yourself after a long day.
- Three Essential Mobile Apps for Excellent Leaders by Barbara Jolie – This short but sweet article offers a guide to programs designed to make your job, as a leader, easier. The blog also features a number of other useful leadership-related posts, like Why You Should Put Employees Ahead of Customers and 20+ Important Life Lessons You Learn as a Poor Student.
- How Smartphone Habits Undermine Leadership by Carmine Gallo – A gentle explanation of how your technology addiction could be hurting your business, and what to do about it, from Forbes.com.
- The Practice of Leadership.net by George Ambler – One of the top-rated leadership blogs on the web, this site provides a plethora of leadership tricks and resources. In this particular article, Ambler recounts a Harvard Business Review article studying how customer feedback can change employee morale.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – First published in 1936, Carnegie's book is the original self-help guide, and remains one of the best. It focuses mainly on how to interact with people in a way that wins them over without seeming manipulative.
- Tribes by Seth Godin – Godin's been a leading voice in the business blogosphere for quite some time now, and for good reason. In this best-selling book, he explains why people need people to be successful, what they look for in a leader, and how to use "tribe mindset" to improve your business.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey – Covey's book is a manual for living an efficient, happy and productive life. While not directly related to leadership, the habits he encourages can help you build traits that followers will admire.
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell – Drawing from the lives of famous leaders from all walks of life, Maxwell creates an easy-to-read guide for effective leadership. While the book lacks in specific guidelines, it more than makes up for it with humorous anecdotes that will hold your attention.
- The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz – The aim of this guide is to motivate you to improve your life by setting and achieving goals you never thought possible. Again, though this book is not specifically about leadership, its lessons are applicable, and you may even find it useful as a recommendation to struggling team members.