There is no shortage of reading or listening material on Leadership. I personally find it very difficult to separate the signal from the noise on this topic. If most of the information you find on leadership seems regurgitated, it's because it is. I find myself frustrated with leadership theory as some of the authors and teachers are PhD's with little to no real world experience. Go visit the universities and you will find countless professors who teach business leadership with lots of capital letters after their name, but very little practical experience. They have studied it, but they have never lived it. If you were going to war, would you want to talk to the guy who was recently in battle and managed to survive, or the nerd back home who studies wind effects on the velocity and aerodynamics of a bullet? If you chose the latter you can stop reading this post right now! The sheer volume of leadership content that these "experts" produce in many instances exceeds hundreds of pages within a single book. I wonder, do these people even have families? If they do, there is no way they have any time to love them. Seriously....400 pages on leadership? More importantly, if they are not leading a family then they lose all credibility with me. It should be a crime to claim leadership expertise if one has never silenced a baby or had to persuade a two-year-old out of pooping their pants. For all the successful negotiations I've had, that's one I have never won!
Ok, all joking aside, what are the ingredients of a great leader based on real world experience? In my heavily biased opinion, the best examples of leadership are real-world startup CEOs. These CEOs typically start businesses with very little capital, they have to dream the idea, they require significant knowledge within their field, they must acquire new clients, they have to understand corporate finance, cashflow, and time-value-money (TVM), they have to recruit new employees, train and mentor employees, they have to reset the organizational vision every calendar year and motivate their team towards this goal, and finally they must be principled individuals with high character, otherwise their staff will not follow them when the going gets tough. A recent Forbes stat shows that 90% of startup businesses fail within the first 5 years. When you consider the sheer bravery and technical difficulty of growing and balancing the responsibilities of a new business, it's no wonder these startup leaders make for great case studies.
Through my personal lessons learned in building a startup business, and by observing numerous business startup leaders across a wide-range of industries, I have come to believe in a leadership framework that is based on 4 Quadrants. That's right, not 400 pages, just 4 cute little squares. In my opinion, the best leaders have mastered all 4 of these Quadrants (see sketch above).
Quadrant 1: Values.
This is the most important aspect of leadership. The individual principles and moral standards of a leader should be honorable and inspiring. Core values include things like Authenticity, Integrity, Respect, Compassion, Accountability, Trustworthy, Humility, and more. If you want people to follow you over broken glass and through fire, you better live right and treat people well. I think of this Quadrant as the long pole in the tent, even if all the other spikes are in the ground, the tent does not stand up without this pole.
Quadrant 2: Domain Knowledge.
Bottom line, you need to know your stuff. Whichever field you are in, you must be credible and respected as a thought leader in the industry. Becoming an expert is not about your total years of experience, how many people work under you, or how many gray hairs you have. It is about the overall quality of your years of experience and the information you have retained. Knowledge is not given to you, it is earned and absolutely vital for obtaining credibility from your staff.
Quadrant 3: Strategic Vision.
As scripture states, "where there is no vision, the people perish." The best leaders are constantly seeing the path ahead and articulating the dream to their team. At AlphaBrook, every year we set a new ambitious vision of where we want to be in twelve months, which fits within our 5-year strategic vision. This visioning process builds excitement and comradery as employees understand they will be stretched and given additional responsibility and decision-making in order for us to achieve our goals. With a healthy vision, organizations flourish creating a tide that rises all boats on the team. With a great vision, everybody is excited to make it a reality - everybody wins.
Quadrant 4: People Management.
Many leaders hate Quadrant 4. They despise it. They hate Q4 so much that they will delegate the people management to others on their staff. This separates the leader even further from his/her team resulting in greater disconnect and confusion. If the leader is introverted, even basic conversations with their staff can make team members feel uncomfortable. Another recurring people management issue is many leaders dread conflict. I have noticed that conflict management and resolution seem to be the achilles heel for so many business leaders. If a personnel situation is uncomfortable, awkward, or just plain difficult, these leaders avoid dealing with it altogether or skip key aspects of the resolution process which marginalizes their team members and can increase internal frustration. A secret trait that all A+ leaders know and respect among one another is the ability to manage tough personnel issues with confidence, fairness, and compassion. If you are a leader, you must look team members in the eye, communicate openly, respect their opinion, and reason with them during difficult times. One interesting trend I have noticed among leaders with deficient people management skills is that many of them were raised by parents that did not always communicate effectively with them, or in family situations that were completely dysfunctional. No worries, I'm not going to offshoot into parenting because that's not my Quad 2 expertise; however, it's a powerful reminder of the long-term communication influence we have on our children.
In summary, I believe you need all 4 Quads to be an effective leader. You must be charactered, you must be a knowledgeable practitioner, you must set the vision, and ultimately, you should be developing your people into becoming leaders of their own. Based on my personal experiences and observations, these are the hallmarks of a complete leader.