The Self-effacing Leader

Good leaders create more leaders and work invisibly from behind the pack, letting others shine. They don’t revel in their own ability to overcome challenges but rather in their team’s ability to do so. They’re kingmakers—not just kings who may come and go. If they play their cards well, they can strengthen succession planning and ensure the long-term stability of the organization. An organization doesn’t put a person in a leadership position just to keep the trains running on time. Instead, leaders’ primary tasks include creating a leadership pipeline and building institutional capacity to expand the business over the long term.

A colleague once related to me the story of a senior manager in one of his previous organizations who never taught his direct reports much. His failure to pass along relevant knowledge ensured that employees never learned enough about any task or process to take ownership of it. Moreover, he ensured that he personally joined all meetings, big or small, even if a qualified team member was going to attend. At these meetings, he deliberately attempted to demonstrate his indispensability to peers and leadership by exposing his team members’ shortcomings.

After hearing this story, I pitied this manager. He wasn’t just mean—he also seemed to make himself and his team miserable due to his insecurity. This is a major pitfall for managers to avoid.

Successful organizations continually build for the future and focus on growth initiatives. Hiring and retaining more professionals with leadership ability are central elements of savvy leaders’ long-term strategic game plans.

STAY HUNGRY FOR KNOWLEDGE

One of the imperatives for becoming an effective leader is to have a wide and deep domain knowledge that enables intuitive decision making and big-picture strategic planning. To teach, one must know. It’s difficult to be a great leader on the strength of academic accomplishments, professional knowledge, or a charismatic personality alone. A leader must be someone who personnel of all levels of seniority look up to and have the utmost trust in, especially when under pressure. To command that kind of respect, leaders must be imbued with knowledge, wisdom, and empathy, not just charisma and the gift of gab.

In one of my previous organizations, I worked for a general manager who had many excellent qualities. He was methodical and meticulous to a fault. He knew all the right tools and workflow tricks: task managers, heat maps, memos, minutes of meetings, team lunches, PowerPoint presentations, and morning emails with wise quotes. Sadly, it was a telecommunications organization, and he knew almost nothing about the telecom industry during his tenure at that company.

We owe it to our organization to thoroughly know the domain in which it operates, its stakeholders, its internal and external environment, its risks, its past and present competitive landscape, and so on. It’s like being on a battlefield. How can you beat the enemy unless you know the battle terrain, your own people, and the opposition like the back of your hand? How can you lead the army, assign them fronts to defend, and thrust them into battle unless you know all the contours of those fronts yourself? While the stakes aren’t as high in business as they are in war, the analogy still pertains to corporate leaders’ knowledge of the organization’s domain and industry vertical.

INSPIRE STAFF LOYALTY

People don’t leave jobs; rather, they leave their bosses. To love a job, a combination of three out of the following four things must be good: the brand’s reputation or prestige, the pay, the job profile and responsibilities, and the relationship with the boss. That last one is often the most crucial, since the boss has the power to make or break employees’ experience in the workplace.

How do good leaders teach? The best way to do so is to demonstrate leadership by example. It’s one thing to pontificate and another to perform tasks by hand and show personnel how to do their jobs successfully. At least in the initial period of training a new hire, it’s necessary to have patience with trainees until they’ve been given a fair chance to learn. It’s sometimes also useful as a subtle way of telling the employee not to take the leader for granted. Leaders who prove that they aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the job themselves are likely to earn the trust and respect of rank-and-file team members.

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