Learning to Lead

What makes a leader successful, even outstanding?

Experts offer myriad answers to that question, touting lists of essential leadership traits or keys to effective management. Amid that great sea of counsel, most leaders in the American workplace must be highly skilled, constantly improving and commanding praise from subordinates--right?

I don't think so.

One of the common gripes I hear from colleagues, friends and family is about ineffective management where they work, which often triggers their discontent.

Still there is hope, floating in the sea of advice: In December BusinessWeek ran a piece by Marshall Goldsmith that explains leadership is about what higher-ups do, not about what they say. Companies often get stuck in a rut of talking too much about their vision of leadership instead of acting on it. Goldsmith and his partner Howard Morgan studied more than 11,000 managers at eight major corporations:

In our study we found that leaders who took training and feedback seriously, made a personal commitment to improvement, and followed up with their co-workers became more effective. Leaders who just listened to the talk but took no action or made no commitment improved no more than those who hadn’t even heard the talk.

Stop Talking, Start Acting

Goldsmith, author of "What Got You Here Won't Get You There," points out the difference between two well-known businesses, Enron and Johnson & Johnson. Enron talked very convincingly about its leadership strategy:

It was one of the most smoothly professional presentations on ethics and values that I have ever seen. Clearly, Enron spent a fortune "packaging" these wonderful messages. It didn't really matter. Despite the lofty words, a number of Enron's top executives either have been indicted or are in jail.

J&J, on the other hand, had a less polished, rather dated presentation on its leadership strategy, but:

the J&J Credo works—primarily because over many years, the company's management has taken its values seriously. J&J executives have consistently challenged themselves and employees not just to understand the values, but to exhibit them in their day-to-day behavior.

Ultimately, Goldsmith explains:

our actions will say much more to employees about our values and our leadership skills than our words ever can. If our actions are wise, no one will care if the words on the wall are not perfect. If our actions are foolish, the wonderful words posted on the wall will only make us look more ridiculous.

Goldsmith offers sound advice that alludes to the old adage, "actions speak louder than words." I reported in a recent post on a Towers Perrin study that revealed the top factor engaging employees--in the U.S. and abroad--is whether they believe senior management is interested in their well-being.

Good leaders strive to keep their employees engaged. They can achieve that goal by actually being good managers, instead of holding meetings where they just talk about it, as Goldsmith urges.

A 'Job Description' for Those Who Would Lead

Nikos Mourkogiannis, a senior executive adviser to Booz Allen Hamilton on strategic leadership issues, offers sage pointers for leaders, also in BusinessWeek. He offers four levels of leadership, and says the best leaders work well on all of the levels:

1. Think: Thinking is the part of leadership that leads to innovating, discovering a purpose, creating a vision, and choosing a strategic position. It is the most essential part of the job, the part that focuses on the future.

2. Inspire: Of course, the most effective leaders inspire. To use [Jack] Welch's word, they energize. But they also sell the vision, act as an example, tell stories, confront reality, ask the right questions, demonstrate possibilities, reassure, and give hope for a bright future.

3. Mobilize: Unlike inspiring, which is typically directed at large numbers of people, mobilizing requires leaders to engage with and influence key players and their specific contributions.

4. Empower: Leaders get most things done through others, so execution depends on managing authority correctly and delegating power generously.

Developing People; Taking 'Measurements'

Another resource worth tapping into is the work of the late Peter F. Drucker, particularly his book "People and Performance." Among other things, a manager develops people and:

establishes measuring yardsticks--and there are few factors as important to the performance of the organization and of everyone in it. A manager sees to it that ... the measurements are focused on the performance of the whole organization, and at the same time focused on the work of the individual and help the individual to do it.

Yet managers are weakest when it comes to measurements, the book says:

And as long as measurements are abused as a tool of "control" (as long, for instance, as measurements are used as a weapon of an internal secret policy that supplies audits and critical appraisals of a manager's performance to the boss without even sending a carbon copy to the manager) measuring will remain the weakest area in the manager's performance.

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