1.09.2013

Become a great leader

During the year 1919 a man was fired by his boss from Kansas City Star newspaper. Lack of imagination was cited as the reason for letting go. That man, whose name we now famously know, was Walt Disney. Ironically Disney eventually bought ABC, the parent company that owned the newspaper.


Walt Disney's story is a perfect example of one's potential of being ignored, dismissed or misread. To be able to get into a leadership position, you need to first look for a leader who you can trust, admire and who can help you get ahead. The last thing you would want to do is to work for a boss who will turn your career into a dead-end.

Jack Welch, who was chairman and CEO of General Electric during 1981 – 2001, always looked for leadership potential in his employees. He is the kind of a boss who derives his energy by putting careers on fast tracks and the one people love to follow voluntarily.

Whether you are in a leadership role or are aspiring to be in one, there are certain traits that you can develop which will help you go a long way.

This is the third post in the success series. The links for the first two are as follows:

Don't do it for money

You should never accept a promotion to a higher role just so that you can get more money. Getting a promotion should not be the only way for you to acquire a healthy raise. If you are a hard working talented employee who is always willing to go that extra mile with a proven track record, you should have no problem talking to your boss about your financial preferences.

The reason I put so much emphasis on not getting a promotion if you do not really want it is because you will get bored in your new position, will not perform very well and eventually be incompetent for your position. You will perform poorly due to your incompetence which will put your job security at risk.

Develop good communication and listening skills

Good listening and communication skills are an integral part of great leadership. By listening you will be able to create an environment in which the employees will be highly motivated, feel their importance and will love to come to work. Keep in mind that listening should be backed by actions. You will end up creating a negative culture if the employee complains or gives feedback and there is no action from your end. The reason encouraging employees to talk and give feedback is important is because that is the portal through which you can feel the pulse of your progress.

In some cases it will take some time for your employees to develop a candor with you. The candor comes through trust and commitment. You will need to establish your reputation as someone who values candid feedback.

During the American civil war, it was the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 that primed the stage for the famous Gettysburg. The Confederates entered the battle under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson with nearly 65,000 men, while the union army fought under the command of Joseph Hooker with 133,000 men - nearly double that of the Lee's army. Hooker was so confident in his ability to defeat General Lee and claim Richmond that he reportedly boasted "My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."

General Lee, in one of the gutsiest moves divided his army into two, sending one half towards the western front to attack Hooker's flank under the lead of Thomas Jackson. This activity is reported to Hooker early in the morning by his intelligence scouts as appearing to be a retreat. Hooker, being ever so confident in his victory, ordered his men to stand down and eventually attack them the next day, following them to Richmond.

As the day moved along, some of the troops in Hooker's army realized that the Confederates are not in a retreat, but are preparing for war. They notify Hooker, but Hooker refused to listen to them. This cost Hooker dearly and General Lee claimed the victory by attacking Hooker from the two fronts.

Chancellorsville was arguably the most stunning victory for the Confederate army.

Miscommunication and refusal to listen to the lower ranking officers was the core cause for the Union army losing this battle.

It's about them not you!

Initially in your career it will be all about you! How much you know, your qualities, your work, your values and things that can help you shine. After all, your transition to a leadership role happened because your talent was recognized and your aspirations matched your skills.

However, the day you became a leader, it will be not about you anymore; it becomes about them (your employees). You will be judged based on their qualities, work and performance and this is where many new leaders make a mistake.

As a great leader, you should build people and feel euphoric when they shine. This is how you will get ahead. You will not go anywhere if you just keep doing what you been doing before you landed the leadership role. Your next promotion will lie in the reflective glory of your employees.

Take Facebook as an example. The moment Mark Zuckerberg turned his hobby into a company and hired people, he became their leader. Instead of leading them, he kept being the great IT person he was. This behavior kept on going until after the IPO when major investors demanded that either he step up or step aside.


Work hours will increase

You cannot be a good leader if you still think in terms of work hours about your job. You have to be a little crazy and concerned about the success of your company, your employees and your vision.

Hire great people and believe in them

Great teams will produce great results and will help you succeed in your goals. When hiring individuals, stay away from simply matching the resume skills, such as 5 years of experience and a degree being the only merit. These skills are important but you could end up with a worker who is talented but selfish, never follows deadlines or not a team player. In poor hiring scenarios, these are the things you discover after the hiring has been completed.

Hire individuals that you believe in and then give them a chance. Throughout their career, tell them how they are doing and what they can do to get ahead. Motivate employees through celebration when they finish a major project.

Tell employees where they stand

One of the important qualities of a great leader is having candor. Your employees should know where they stand in relation to their skills and performance. The worst possible way to inform an employee of a bad performance is by giving them a surprise at their performance evaluations or at the time of firing.

You should always be ready to answer two key items: where an employee stands and what he/she needs to do to get ahead. Constructive criticism is considered as being cruel by some; but the reality is not telling your employees about their strengths, weaknesses and the steps they need to take to improve them is the farthest thing from being kind.

I am a firm believer that you should pay attention to the prosperity and growth of the A-level employees while helping the average-standing employees become overachievers. The number one motivation killer for a high performing team is to see that the management is taking no action towards poorly performing employees.

As a leader you will need to develop the chutzpah required to make tough decisions. It would be wise to suggest a different career for those employees whose performance is below average and does not improve even after continuous feedback.

Don't judge too quickly

We are all humans and humans make mistakes. If people under you have made a mistake, they will already be stressed and you should not add to that. Instead, encourage them to learn from the mistake and proceed to find a solution.

Don't ask why. Instead ask how it happened, how can we fix it? And what we can do to avoid it in future?

Watch for overconfidence

History tells us that it is our expert type egoistic behavior that dooms us. Bestselling author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell explained this phenomenon beautifully in his book "Blink." Malcolm warns that being overconfident creates an illusion of false reality, causing you to lose track of the world around you. James (Jimmy) Cayne of Bear Stearns is a golden example of this false illusion. During the last financial crisis, Bear Stearns became the first casualty of the meltdown. In the months leading to the meltdown, Bear Stearns' then CEO Jimmy Cayne was so overconfident of his investment strategies that he took no preemptive measures whatsoever to save his company from the crisis.

By the time it became apparent that his company was a major holder of the toxic subprime mortgages, it was too late. Bear Stearns' had no choice but to beg for money to stay afloat, which was rejected by Timothy Geithner, the Federal Reserve president at the time, resulting in their stock value crumbling. Jimmy's interview after the collapse proved to be the icing on the cake; he refused to take any responsibility and blamed Geithner for his own shortcomings.

As a great leader we should have a balance of humility and confidence and be humble and understand that we are one part of a big puzzle.

Bottom line

The take away is to lead in such a way that when asked about you from those below you, they'll say that you are fair, you care and you are willing to show tough love. Aligning yourself with good values will blossom your future while expert type egoistic behavior will doom you.

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