You’re not here to make friends

The role of leader is not to seek to be popular, it is to serve in the best interest of stakeholders.  At different stages of your career, those stakeholders will change and evolve, but broadly that means your employees, customers, employers and society. It goes without saying that at times the interests of these different groups will present a tension. But frankly, that’s your job.

When I say this, the immediate reaction is to infer that I believe that the job of leaders is to be unpopular, that in some way I’m suggesting a nasty, brutal model of leadership. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply in order to lead well, you need to be prepared for people to not like you or your decisions. If you’re not, you will always shy away from a percentage of choices that could be helpful.

Backing yourself to make unpopular decisions and to lead through them to the other side is the very essence of leadership. In the most simple form, that’s why soldiers climbed out of the trenches, it is why explorers travelled the world, it is why star players are dropped before finals. The ability to make clear, decisive and difficult decisions.

The success of a leader isn’t how many people like them, it is how well they’re respected. I was reminiscing the other evening about a leader that I’d sadly had to remove from an organisation in the past. He was deeply liked and hugely popular, but from an impartial perspective massively ineffective. When he left the organisation there was a lot of emotion. A couple of years later team members voluntarily told me how angry they had been and how wrong they thought the decision was, but how much better things were now that he had gone.

Being a leader means sometimes we have to be unpopular, it means speaking out when it is inconvenient and acting when inaction would be easier. We must never conflate personal popularity with effectiveness or respect, we must be prepared to cause upset, not for the sake of it, but for the greater good.

We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to do the right thing.

Toxic cultures and ticking time bombs

The strange thing about toxic cultures, is the inability of those within to see how bad things have really got. It normally takes an inflection point or disruptive external event to raise levels of awareness to the point of consciousness. Looking at the recent tribulations of the UK Labour party and the Australian cricket team, we can see perfect examples (in different ways) of the way that toxic cultures become all-encompassing in a blinding fog of self-delusion. We’ve seen similar situations play out in the banking sector and other industries, which I’ve written about before.

It raises the question whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the slow slip towards implosion, or if a turbulent outcome is inevitable. What can leaders do to intervene?

Recognise it starts small – recognising small behavioural changes and calling them out is crucial to preventing the situation getting worse. Tolerance to bad cultural epithets increases over time unless they’re nipped in the bud.

Don’t explain away – it is very easy to explain things away, even when they get to seemingly gargantuan proportions. We’re just highly competitive, we have an overarching will to win, others are just jealous, they’re trying to drag us down, we know the real truth. And yes, you probably do but you won’t admit it.

Listen and be willing to hear – There are people who know that things are going the wrong way, there is seldom a lone bad apple or renegade group. People see and know, they just need to be given permission to talk and leaders need to listen and hear. If people think you’re just paying lip service, they won’t bother to risk the wrath and the pain.

Define your values and stick to them – The corridors of corporate power are littered with mission statements, values and charters which no-one knows and no-one applies in business decisions. Values in business are important, but only when they come off the poster and enter the psyche.

Look outside in – Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to take a regular look at your culture, behaviours and ethics. In business we are used to having people look at our accounts, our data and reports, our supply chain and other areas of our operation. So why not culture? An annual health check, by an independent third-party would go along way to holding yourselves to account.

The secret of exceptional leaders

Throughout my career I’ve often been asked what I think the secret to being a great leader is. I’ve probably said things like, vision and drive or strategic thinking and commercial acumen. The truth is that I don’t think any of these things are the key to being a GREAT leader, they’re pretty much standard practice.

The thing that I’ve observed that really separates the good from the truly exceptional is  a bit closer to home, a bit less glamorous and sexy and yet probably harder to achieve.

It’s self-awareness.

Truly great leaders recognise they’re not as great as others believe and they know how to compensate for it. They’re acutely aware of their strengths and weakness, they recognise how they’re behaving and why – the situations that will trigger them or cause them to react. And they work constantly to maintain that level of awareness.

Most of us aren’t truly self-aware – we build internal stories that allow us to explain away our foibles:

“I’m not impatient, I’m demanding”

“I don’t do detail, I”m a big picture thinker”

“I’m not a micro-manager, I just like detail”

But of course, none of us are perfect and therefore no leader is perfect either. Instead, the really successful recognise, acknowledge and either adapt or compensate for the areas where they know they fall short. That can take the form of public acceptance and permission to challenge, by building teams who have complimentary approaches or simply through self coaching and holding themselves account.

So if you’re on a leadership journey, my advice to you is to spend a little more time focussing on yourself.  Be hard on “you” in order to give yourself a break. There is no model of leadership perfection that you will ever obtain, but you can be the best leader you’re capable of being. There is a path for you to grow and be better, but only you will ever, truly know how.

 

 

5 lessons on leadership

Your external network is everything – Being at the top of any structure can be a pretty lonely place – ask any CEO. You can’t go bitching and moaning to your boss, that’s not good karma, you can’t confide certain things to your team. So where do you go? That’s where having a good external network – people who are doing similar roles, facing similar challenges is critical.

You set the mood – From the moment you walk in the building, to the moment you leave you’re setting the tone. In your language, your behaviour, your pace and energy. You will receive back pretty much what you give out. If you’re having a bad day, keep it behind closed doors and do your best not to let it show. If it’s a bad week, it is probably time to take a holiday.

You have to trust your instincts – Every leader brings something of themselves into their team. Their personality, their experience, their style and their judgment. Most decisions, most questions don’t have a binary right or wrong answer – there are multiple right answers. Bringing your instinct as well as your intelligence defines your agenda and outcomes in a unique and personal way.

You can’t know everything – Or perhaps even half of things. One of the most important things to know is that the more you progress, the less (in percentage terms) of your range of responsibilities you will really know. Which means you need to have people around you who do. That’s their job and yours is something else. Second guessing them is never going to end successfully for either party.

You always have time to chat – Rushing around looking busy is not cool because everyone is busy. Life is not a busyness contest, it will win you no prizes. Be generous with your time, value the power of simple conversation, a quick hello or checking in on how someone is. If you’ve been through a day without genuinely inquiring after someone or stopping to pass the time, then you’re not doing a leadership role.