Even though few would dispute the value of being an engaged leader, many still do not practice what they preach. The harsh reality is great numbers of leaders continue to operate in a vacuum by sequestering themselves away in the corner office and attempting to lead from afar. Trust me when I tell you that being out of touch is never a good position to find yourself in as the CEO. I rarely come across leaders who couldn’t benefit from being more meaningfully engaged on both a broader and deeper basis, and hope that today’s post will encourage you to do just that…ENGAGE.
I have consistently espoused the value of walking the floor (hat tip to Tom Peters – MBWA), dropping in for meetings on an impromptu basis, proactively engaging key stakeholders, and any number of other items that focus on raising your awareness. Don’t think span of control – think span of awareness.
My advice to CEOs, regardless of whether you’re running a start-up or a Fortune 500 company, is to go see things for yourself. I think you’ll find your view of the world will change dramatically when you validate impressions based upon your own observations, as opposed to sole reliance on what you read in a management report, or what you hear third or fourth hand in a meeting. Think about it… when you’re sitting in front of the board, on an analyst call, providing testimony, talking to the media, or speaking at the annual shareholder meeting, wouldn’t it be great to actually know what your talking about as opposed to interpreting what someone else has told you?
So the real question is this – how does a CEO get to the point of being so disconnected from operations that he or she just doesn’t have a clue? The reality is that there are any number of reasons why this can happen, a few of which I’ve noted below:
- The Optimistic CEO: I have met a number of CEOs that simply choose to view the world through rose colored glasses. They will believe what they want to believe regardless of what they hear or what they observe. Even in the worst of times they believe nothing to be insurmountable. While optimism is generally a great quality for a CEO to possess, there is a point at which unbridled optimism can disconnect a person from reality.
- The Arrogant CEO: These CEOs believe they can will their view into reality in spite of circumstances, situations, or events. The arrogant CEO doesn’t value the input of line and staff management. These CEOs see management opinions as inconsequential, unless of course, they happen to be in alignment with their own beliefs and opinions.
- The Unaware CEO: These CEO’s will take any report or piece of information at face value. These CEOs are overly trusting, and often politically naive. They fail to seek clarification, validation, or proof supporting the information they have been fed. This is a very unhealthy state of mind for a CEO hoping to survive over the long haul.
- The Fearful CEO: These chief executives hide in fear of making a mistake, revealing shortcomings or inadequacies, or in an attempt at managing perceptions. CEOs guided by fear often suffer from indecision and analysis paralysis. The worst thing about a fearful CEO, is that executives who refuse to make decisions and take risks will transfer that thinking to others within the organization. Leadership is a contagion – good or bad. Oddly enough, the biggest sign of a fearful leader is when a leader fails to engage. Leaders who avoid personal interaction, or shy away from social media for all the wrong reasons are likely fearful leaders.
- The Disconnected CEO: Unlike CEOs who understand how to leverage time and resources via delegation while remaining connected to management and staff, the disconnected CEO does just the opposite. They have reclusive tendencies which cause them to often completely abdicate responsibility and remain disconnected from management. Sticking one’s head in the sand will not make the circumstances of a particular situation go away, rather that type of thinking will likely on exacerbate the issue.
If you’re a CEO with clouded vision and desire to change the view from the top, it is critical that you maintain open lines of communication through a variety of channels and feedback loops. All good leaders maintain a connection and rapport with both line and staff. Furthermore, savvy CEOs are always working to refine their intuitive senses. A good CEO demands accountability and transparency. They challenge everything of consequence. They understand that acceptance of general statements and ambiguity, or blindness to hidden agendas will only contribute to limiting their vision.
If you’re a CEO and you haven’t personally spoken with your top customers, suppliers, vendors and partners, you’re doing yourself and your company a great injustice. If your CFO handles all communications with your banking relationships, and your Chief Investment Officer handles all of your investor relations, you’re flat out missing the boat. If your CMO is making all of your brand decisions there will be h*ll to pay down the road. Moreover, in today’s litigious and compliance oriented world where the CEO is no longer out of reach, it’s just plain smart to take a more hands on approach. Remember that there is a major difference between delegating and abdicating responsibility. I think President Reagan said it best: “trust but verify.”
Let me be very clear; I’m not suggesting that you become a micro manager or that you stop delegating, I’m simply suggesting you do the job the way it is supposed to be done. Great leaders champion from the front – they are not disengaged invisible executives. As the CEO you are the visionary, influencer, champion, defender, evangelist, and you must have a bias to action. You can be none of these things as a recluse.
Engaged leaders are very visible and very active leaders – they question, listen, assess and react. I can promise you one thing – leaders who don’t have a clear read on the pulse of the organization, won’t have a healty pulse for very long.
Talent, in and of itself, is highly overrated. While not all leaders will develop their talents and abilities to the same level, all successful leaders more or less begin with the same foundation. Here’s the thing – most foundational elements of leadership require no skill or talent whatsoever. Clearly the difference possessed by all great leaders is they continue to refine, develop and build from their foundation – they understand leadership is not a destination; it’s a continuum. The best leaders combine attitude, effort and skill, but of the three, skill is the least important. When in doubt, always choose attitude over aptitude. In today’s column I’ll share 6 leadership characteristics that require zero talent or skill.
“Managing Up” is a great catch phrase and an interesting concept – it’s also a practice that can get you in deep trouble rather quickly if misunderstood or misapplied. Many people would say the purpose of managing-up is to have the by-product of your efforts enhance the work of those you report to. While I have nothing against this concept (I call it doing your job), I do have a problem with the reality that many practitioners of managing-up miss the point altogether. When the practice of managing up gets confused with promotion of self-interest, brown-nosing, manipulation, the gymnastics of corporate climbing, or other mind games, a good theory rapidly becomes twisted resulting in a false and dangerous reality.
Leadership is about leading. Leadership is a 24-7-365 endeavor. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the best leaders view what they do as a calling and not just a job. If you’re a leader, what you do in public or private, in silence or in word, and in thought or in deed will be observed, evaluated and critiqued – count on it. There are simply no free passes for leaders. Don’t believe me? Just look around – the news is littered each day with examples of people in leadership positions who ignore or forget what I’ve just espoused. In today’s post I’ll examine the fallacy of leading by not leading.
There has been an interesting amount of chatter of late around the concept of “when to lead.” What puzzles me is this statement’s inference there must be a good time not to lead. I couldn’t disagree more – abdication is not a leadership quality, characteristic or trait. Leaders who view their role as a part-time activity will be replaced by those who realize the frivolity of such a belief. When you’re in a leadership role, everything you do is on the clock. Whether you realize it or not, everything you do as a leader is leading – the question is whether or not your action or inaction constitutes good or bad leadership.
Let me take a moment and dismiss the sophomoric leadership theorists who believe that sometimes a leader must not lead by stepping-back, stepping-aside or stepping-away and acquiescing leadership to others. This doesn’t represent an example of not leading, rather it is a great example of real leadership. Real leaders know that choosing to surrender the floor, to remain silent, to delegate, or to utilize any number of other subtle acts of leadership demonstrate astute examples of situational and contextual leadership.
Furthermore, real leaders don’t stop leading when they leave the workplace – they are the same person at work, in the home, or in social settings. They also understand effective leadership doesn’t always require a physical presence. They recognize good leadership is transferable, distributable and scalable, and therefore, should continue in their absence as well. Leadership that doesn’t exist in the absence of a leader really isn’t leadership at all.
Leadership isn’t about volume – it’s about vision. Leadership has little to do with personal glory, but everything to do with influencing the right outcomes. Smart leaders understand leadership influence is multi-directional and can come from many angles. While leadership is most easily recognized when appearing from the front, it is often times more effective being exerted from behind through service, or in collaborative engagement standing along side those you lead. Regardless of approach, great leaders understand leadership failure comes most often when leaders fail to lead.
Everything you do as a leader sets an example or sends a message – good or bad. Leaders are measured by how they conduct themselves online and offline, in business and social settings, and by how they value family and friends. Whether you accept a leadership position, or are thrust into a leadership role by circumstance, once you make the choice to be a leader you must ALWAYS lead. Dismiss or forget this advice at great cost and peril – remember it and you’ll be long admired for your service as a leader.
Bonus or no bonus? That is the question. This is the time of year where expectations are high, and so is the volume of chatter around the water cooler in anticipation of that great corporate tradition – the year-end bonus. So what’s it going to be this year; a turkey, an extra paid day off, a cash bonus, stock/options/warrants, something creative or nothing at all? In today’s column I’ll take a look at the well intentioned but often misguided practice of year-end bonuses…
Choice; it’s a simple, yet critical aspect of leadership. Academics and business theorists often gloss over the basics of leadership preferring to trivialize their importance. It’s far too easy for those with an elitist approach to leadership to dismiss simple as sophomoric, and obvious as irrelevant – nothing could be further from reality. Leadership has little to do with complex theory, but everything to do with understanding the subtleties of human behavior. Just as you must choose whether or not to lead, it’s your choice whether or not to read on – choose wisely.
At its essence, leadership isn’t a job – it’s a choice. Everything about leadership begins with a choice – even accepting a leadership role. Whether leaders are elected, appointed, anointed, or self-proclaimed, and regardless of whether it is by design or default, at some level you make a choice to be a leader. Once you make that choice, you then must choose whether or not to lead well.
It’s often said leaders succeed or fail based upon the decisions the make. While the aforementioned statement is true to an extent, it glosses over a fundamental element of the decision process – choice. All decisions are the result of several seemingly insignificant choices. By the way, these choices are only insignificant to the arrogant, naive or inexperienced. It’s also important to keep in mind, rationalizations and justifications are choices too.
It’s not uncommon for leaders to feel forced into making certain decisions due to personal, professional, positional, cultural, or political circumstances. That said, leaders are never forced into anything – they make a choice. Leadership is also not a matter of chance; it’s a matter of choice. While flawed and/or failed leaders often blame happenstance as the reason for poor outcomes, it’s their choices that deserve scrutiny when searching for the root cause of calamity. There is an art to choice, and smart leaders always place themselves in a position to create and preserve options; not limit them.
The best leaders I’ve worked with have a framework for developing priorities, which in turn, allows them to make outstanding choices. They have a clear understanding of who they are, what they value, and where they will or won’t compromise. This affords them tremendous clarity of purpose. It also gives them the ability to align vision with talent and allow important decision making to be pushed to the edges of the enterprise. They recognize it’s quite possible to be very focused, without becoming rigid. Great leaders understand there is more to be gained through flexibility and collaboration than by edict or mandate. They simply make wise choices.
The choices leaders must make are seemingly endless. Leaders choose to control or collaborate, and to lead change or to embrace status quo. It’s a choice to value being right over seeking the right outcome. Leaders choose to be aloof or to be engaged. It’s a choice to be self-serving or to place service above self. A leader always has the choice to take credit or to give credit. Leaders can choose to create culture by default or design, and perhaps most of all, a leader must choose to care.
Leadership shouldn’t ever be complex, but the reality is it’s often very difficult. Leaders must choose to display the character and integrity required to make hard choices, personal sacrifices, and to do the right thing (not just the popular thing).
Show me a great leader and I’ll show you a talented storyteller. Leadership and storytelling go hand-in-hand. In fact, leaders who lack the ability to leverage the power and influence of storytelling are missing the very essence of what accounts for compelling leadership to begin with – the story. Give me a few minutes and allow me to share a story with you – it may just change your life.
In my most recent column on Forbes I briefly discussed the value of white space as it relates to “span of control” but felt the topic deserved a deeper dive. Here’s something you might not want to hear, but you should definitely take to heart – If you’re having difficulty ordering your world, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. I don’t care how busy you are, but I do care about what you accomplish – the former doesn’t always lead to the latter. Busy leaders are a dime a dozen, but highly productive leaders are not so common. One of the easiest things for leaders to do is to bite off more than they can chew.
Fact: bright, talented executives with a bias to action will often take on more than they should. These leaders don’t understand the value of white space. The reality is maximizing results and creating a certainty of execution is all about focus, focus and more focus. Here’s the thing – it’s difficult to focus in the middle of chaos. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to learn to create white space. The best leaders are those who understand the most productive things often happen during intentional periods of isolation used for self-reflection, introspection, and the rigor of critical thought.
While the mind of a leader may be most comfortable being oriented toward the future, he/she can only act in the here and now. The knowledge and skills required to master any endeavor only happens when we focus on what we’re currently doing. This is the definition of presence, and it is only when we operate in the present that real creativity, growth and innovation occur. The problem with being present is many leaders confuse this with having to do everything themselves. Have you ever interacted with somone who deals with silence by jumping in and filling the conversational void? This same thing occurs with executives who attempt to fill every open slot on the calendar with activity – this is a huge mistake.
All good leaders have matured to understand they can be fully engaged and present and yet still be alone. Smart leaders don’t fill their calenders with useless activities, they strategically plan for white space allowing them to focus on highest and best use endeavors. Leading doesn’t always mean doing. In fact, most often times it means pulling back and creating white space so that others can do. This is true leadership that scales.
Is your rubber-band stretched so tight it’s about to snap? Efficiency and productivity are not found working at or even near capacity. Rather entering the productivity zone is found working at about 60% to 70% of capacity. Operating in excess of that threshold will cause increased stress, lack of attention to detail and errant decisioning. The old “what if I only had ‘x’ number of hours to work in a week, what would I focus on?” exercise is a good one. In fact, if you’re reading this text, just stop right now and benchmark your activity against your reflective thoughts – Is what you’re doing, in alignment with your true priorities, or have you been sucked down into the weeds?
It is important for executives to learn to apply focused leverage to a limited number of highest and best use activities rather than to continually shift gears between multiple initiatives. Resist the temptation to just advance a broad number of disparate initiatives, and alternatively focus your efforts on the completion of a few high impact objectives. The simple reality is that if you continue to add new responsibilities to an already full plate, all of your obligations will suffer as a result. Face current challenges head-on by keeping your head down and applying focused leverage to the task at hand. Leaders who operate without margins usually hit the wall they are most desperate to avoid.
Have you noticed how some leaders are frenzied, stressed, and always playing from behind, while others are eerily clam and always appear to be a few steps ahead? It’s been my experience that leaders who fall into the latter category make great use of their thought life, while those in the former category seem to forgo their alone time in lieu of being busy. Savvy leaders crave white space whereas unseasoned leaders feel uncomfortable with open time.
One thing that can be a difficult lesson to learn is that not all engagement is necessary or productive. Leadership and engagement go hand-in-hand, but only when engagement happens by design rather than by default. Don’t get me wrong, good things can happen with spontaneous engagement, but if you’re engaging with others without intent and purpose, it likely serves as a distraction for all parties. Don’t interfere with your team just because you don’t understand how to use your time wisely. If you do, you’ll become an annoyance known for not respecting others – this is not leadership.
I have found the best leaders are harder on themselves than anyone else could ever be. In fact, so much so, that the best leaders constantly self-assess and are relentless in challenging themselves. They relish their solitude because it gives them the ability to be alone with their thoughts, to challenge their logic, to refine their theories, and to test the boundaries of their intellect. It’s during these quiet moments that leaders willing to be honest with themselves will examine their own flaws and frailties. They are forever in search of new ways of dealing with old problems.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about creating white space is that it presents opportunities for others to step-in and raise the level of their contributions. When leaders step back and resist the temptation to do everything themselves their organization is strengthened. When leaders become comfortable being without always doing collaboration flourishes and productivity is enhanced. Whether white space makes you more productive on an individual basis, or you leverage the white space create operational depth and scale, you’re better off with white spice than without it.