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How to be an Extraordinary Leader

By May 2, 2011Article

What does leadership mean today? It’s a term used often, in many contexts, to imply many qualities, that it’s tough to say what it means and who truly merits the distinction of being called a leader.
For example, what separates leaders most of us acknowledge as great such as Jack Welch, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohammad, or Moses from my adventure guide in Costa Rica or from my wife’s tennis team captain? They’re also considered leaders.
Everyone, it seems, qualifies.
We see leadership in everything-every competency, every project, every relationship. Behind every problem, there seems to be a leadership scapegoat. Leadership has become the abyss of all issues and is used to describe the progress made by any individual. The term continues to evolve in application and dissolve in impact. It no longer distinguishes, and yet we distinguish the term.
The consequence of lacking a clear definition of leadership, of course, is that without one we cannot recognize, train, cultivate, manage, or effectively follow the leaders we desperately need to guide our businesses in the most complex marketplace in world history. Without these leaders, businesses quite simply will fail to meet the unprecedented challenges they face. We need organizational champions to survive and to thrive today and tomorrow.
Leadership Is baseless
To move successfully into the future of vast complexity and abundant change, we need consistent and core principles exhibited by today’s most extraordinary leaders. My new book, The Organizational Champion: How to Develop Passionate Change Agents at Every Level, explains why leadership is baseless without core principles.
If someone asked me today, “How do I become a leader?” I would be a fool to try to answer. No single prescription exists. I’d have to ask, “What do you want to lead?” One’s circumstance has as much to do with leadership development as any character or skill pursuit. Leadership has no foundation to rest upon. In fact, more than 600 definitions exist for leadership and all of its derivatives. It’s hard to agree on a definition, so everyone contributes.
We often define leadership from an existing or anticipated need. The problem is that the needs continue to change and grow-therefore, so does leadership. The solution is not simply to add new aspects to the definition. Instead, we must conceive a whole new way of looking at leadership-through core principles lived out by the organizational champion.
To better understand the need for such principles, let’s look at the complex challenges we face today. We’re in unique times as businesses are faced with new and enormous economic challenges that have never been experienced before. Consider escalating energy and food costs, plummeting business value, a housing market in crisis, government bailouts, and questionable ethical behavior, and it’s no wonder that President Obama’s campaign promise for “change” is the forefront communication by successful politicians.
New core principles for leadership
We need capable and trusted leaders to navigate these murky waters, and successful businesspeople know it. Over 75 percent of all CEOs around the world consider leadership development their highest concern. Our postmodern world calls for a postmodern approach to leadership development. We need core principles that keep extraordinary leaders grounded, steady, and equipped to succeed in a world of constant change. Old and evolving leadership models simply cannot handle the myriad circumstances that will now and forever emerge.
Almost every interview and survey we’ve conducted and conversation we’ve had during the past three years at SVI has been a journey to establish these core principles for leadership to grow from.

  1. Because we are tested. Organizational champions must be grounded, self-realized, and enlightened before they can make the biggest impacts through competency or skill.
  2. Because we are a complex planet of diverse people. Organizational champions must value mutual or global benefit before they can build trust.
  3. Because people are behind progress. Organizational champions must engage personally and emotionally before they can inspire others to do the same.
  4. Because progress demands change. Organizational champions must cast a worthy and transformational vision in order for others to embrace change.
  5. Because change is constant and is today’s identity. Organizational champions must enable organizational agility.

In my business career I’ve been called on to be a leader who energizes a deenergized culture, a leader who brings innovation to a stagnant business, and a leader who builds accountability within an unproductive team. Other leaders face different situations and need to be a different type of leader-a healer, a producer, a networker, an analyzer, a mediator, a visionary.
Therefore, leadership is tied to specific needs that are met through a set of appropriate behaviors and abilities called competencies. A healer, for example, would likely need to lead empathetically at times, while a visionary might need to lead through strategy. Empathetic behaviors and strategic abilities are considered competencies.
If business needs are ever-expanding and competencies are developed to meet these needs, then competencies are baseless. If competencies are baseless, then so is leadership as we define it today.
Leadership at Sony is different from leadership at the United Nations, which is different from leadership in Congress, which is different from leadership at the local grocery store. It’s different because the needs are different.
If leadership is carried out differently according to given circumstances or situations, then it’s not universal. And leadership shouldn’t be. Let leadership be what leadership is. It’s not a model, but rather a fluid application of behaviors that advances the desired outcome of any situation.
Organizational champions are transformational leaders
As we move from policy-driven leadership to principle-driven leadership, we move from transactional to transformational leadership. Military leaders, for example, often thrive in transactional, policy-driven leadership. They work by the book, or they don’t work at all. On the other hand, combat-tested veterans know that conforming to rules works only up to a point.
There always comes a time-often under the most crucial of circumstances-when the rule book no longer applies and what to do next “just ain’t written.” Of course, knowing when to abandon the book and start improvising is another trick in itself. This is the point at which one moves from transaction to transformation.
Transactional leaders execute the work, while transformational leaders create a movement through a mission-oriented, principle-based mindset. I’m defining transactions as those standard practices or activities that it takes to execute the work. Clocking in and clocking out are transactional behaviors.
So is performing your task list, adhering to standard and timely financial reporting, delivering a typical sales pitch, conducting product quality reviews, or making a purchase.
Transactional leaders oversee adherence to process to protect quality and drive efficiency. They coach their staffs to increase proficiency. Transactional leadership is often comfortable, easy and safe.
Transformational leadership requires envisioning possibilities that aren’t clearly defined. It requires an ability to move beyond what’s established to what’s possible. Leaders aren’t bound by transactions. Many strong leaders are, in fact, transformational.
The old leadership philosophy, however, allows transactional behavior without ever demanding the transformational. Organizational champions don’t have such luxury. The transaction is the easy part for them. They are constantly breaking transactional boundaries to transform their businesses into something better.
Even more, our research at SVI suggests that those involved in or leading transformational efforts are more engaged, have a better outlook, and feel more enabled by their organization regardless of their level in the organization.
Organizational champions are trusted
P&G is well known for its marketing savvy. It hasn’t come close to getting its proper due for developing extraordinary leaders. P&G’s leadership development efforts are impressive.
P&G knows how to maximize performance by enabling its people and deploying its resources efficiently. The first lesson I learned in working with P&G is that you’d better be good. You can’t fool this company with a savvy sales pitch. Second, you’d better be committed, because the company will stretch you and your organization. Third, you can trust it.
You can trust it because it is committed to mutually beneficial relationships. A win-lose proposition is no proposition for P&G, its employees, its consumers, its communities, or its business partners and suppliers. I’ve even seen P&G champion win-win scenarios with its fierce competitors to exponentially grow product categories. P&G has never asked my company to compromise our profits, our values, our work quality, or our people. It is fair (our win), and because of it, it gets our best every time (P&G wins).
This is how organizational champions think. The organizational champion pursues mutual benefit every time. Organizational champions do not manage through intimidation or edict; they build teams by relating through trust and genuine concern, and by communicating frequently and openly.
The old leadership philosophy leaves an open door to self-serving efforts, even, at the extreme, intolerant dictatorships. These self-serving leaders can rapidly gain power and can cause damage that ultimately destroys cultures.
Today, no matter how hard we strive to hide selfish ambition or impure motives, we are easily exposed. The world, and you in it, is much more connected and visible. It’s harder to get away with self-serving agendas. People are smarter, knowledge is shared faster, history is readily available, patterns are easily observed, and reputations are developed quickly. Being scrutinized is part of the game, and those who work to destroy are more easily identified and disarmed. Organizational champions are able to keep self-serving agendas in check and embrace mutually beneficial pursuits with others.
The same goes for companies. Many companies are completely captivated by their own self-serving pursuits regardless of the consequences to others. Championship organizations avoid these purely self-serving efforts as well and find greater success in their ability to win in their business and win in society.
In today’s business environment, those people and those companies with a propensity to do good and not harm, who have concern beyond themselves, and are socially conscious are building better reputations and stronger brands and are capturing new market share all of which have been previously closed to them. These people and these companies are forming stronger and more trusted relationships with new, influential, and loyal stakeholders.
Organization champions can execute their vision
I can think of nothing more dangerous to the health of a business than a transformational, mission-minded leader driving a compelling vision without the ability or propensity to execute that vision. In my organization, we call such leaders dreamers.
These executives are bold in vision, weak in execution. Conversely, consider the leader who lacks vision but can execute with the best. This type, too, is common in business today. Both types will result in market decline. The leader who can’t execute loses because of lost trust with consumers, while the leader who lacks vision loses because of an inability to make a relevant connection with consumers in the first place.
The old leadership philosophy allows for this linear, single-minded approach-visionary or operational. The formula can be successful and has worked for some for many years. But for every one of these types of leaders who succeeds, there are dozens more who fail to remain relevant because of their inability to envision, adapt, or adjust to demand and change.
Apple was visionary with Steve Jobs, then became operational with John Sculley, then became visionary and operational recently with Steve Jobs again. Leaders can be visionary, operational, strategic, or creative. They can build powerful reputations based on their ability to be amazing in a single area.
Organizational champions, again, don’t have such luxury. Creating movements and driving organizational transformations demand that an executive, senior leader, or manager think systematically, considering all components of the transformation.
Interestingly enough, there is one qualifier to our research of an organizational champion. While champions don’t have to be skilled in all areas to drive transformational change, our research indicates that they must be able to imagine new possibilities. Champions can’t assign visionary duty to others. They can’t remove “casting vision” from their role or responsibility. Realize, however, that vision for organizational champions doesn’t happen within a silo. They seek out help and the involvement of others throughout the vision-forming process.
The key is that an organizational champion must be involved in leading the effort. Champions might not be strategic thinkers, but they must be able to envision change. They may not be the best communicators, but they must present a compelling future.
Organizational champions don’t let circumstances define reults
Leaders are often defined by their leadership or circumstance. A hard beginning might lead to conservative play. Early success might either satisfy leaders or create a greater hunger, thereby altering their organizational plans. Organizational champions, regardless of their situation, take action according to their sense of mission. These champions will overcome a natural propensity to survive through tough times and will follow a higher sense of purpose regardless of the times. They aren’t defined by circumstance, but rather by core beliefs, values, and principles.
Organizational champions are grounded in principles that are timeless to them and definitely not circumstantial. They aren’t easily shaken by the tidal wave of issues or challenges that might come their way. Therefore, they are consistent, steady, and poised. Because they are consistent regardless of circumstance, they are trusted.
These champions do not wait for an opportunity to show their skills. Instead, they create opportunities. The old-model leadership philosophy allows leaders to avoid transformational change if an opportunity simply doesn’t present itself. Organizational champions do not get off the hook so easily. They must recognize opportunities where others may not see them. And when they recognize those opportunities they must seize them, mine their full potential, and achieve their goal.
Organizational champions use their emotions
I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “Play it close to the vest” or “Check your emotions at the door” in business situations. Leaders are often encouraged to keep their emotions in check, to think logically. It’s a standard strategy in a negotiation, not giving the person on the other side of the table too much information to use against you.
So, as leaders we wake up on a beautiful morning eager for what life has to present that day, only to intentionally work ourselves into the proper frame of mind-guarded-before we enter our workplace.
Some advantages might be tied to this emotionless approach. We might be better negotiators or critics. We want people to assume that our lack of emotions means that we’re steady and unshakable. It’s often difficult for us to view an emotional leader in a positive light because we tend to consider only the full throttle of emotions-unbridled anger, melodramatic weeping-of non-effective leaders. But outside of the extremes, our research indicates that a lack of emotions actually depletes the trust others have in us.
The most effective leaders give their teams true glimpses of themselves, and they are often vulnerable with their excitement or concerns. A champion’s emotional expression is given as a gift to his or her team for the sake of authenticity and energy. Lack of emotion suggests that we have little concern about anything beyond ourselves.
The leaders of tomorrow
Our world, our society will never go back but will continue forward. Today’s challenges will grow grander tomorrow, along with new challenges rising up and adding more complexity. As leaders, as companies, we must learn agility within a commonly shared and core framework. The playing field for exceptional leadership today and tomorrow must be established in order for us to effectively maneuver through the many demands we will face.
Mike Thompson is the CEO of SVI, a leading organizational development company whose mission is to create irresistible companies and extraordinary people. This article is an excerpt from his new book The Organizational Champion: How to Develop Passionate Change Agents at Every Level.

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