WHAT MAKES A GREAT LEADER?
This a question that has puzzled researchers for some time. Back in the 19th century we looked to enlightenment among people – mostly oriented to new ideas and processes that would move civilization forward. That helped but did not provide full answers. Of course we were still in the throes of the start of the industrial revolution. We looked at psychology to show us how to find leaders at the turn of the 20th century, but that faded in favor of trying to determine traits that made good leaders in the 1920s. The idea of traits faded as we started looking the style by which people managed (think all those tests out there), but soon found that management style, leadership perception and results were often not correlated. In the 1990s we started looking at adaptation, but as Jim Collins points out the great companies seem to have leaders that are the opposite of the charismatic leadership many seek or seek to become. It’s the plodders, who can adapt to changing facts or situations on the front lines, that seem to get results. And we only tend to notice after the fact, or well into their leadership reign, not at the beginning. In fact many of the best success stories received much criticism early on.
What this all seems to indicate is that leadership evolves, just as civilization evolves. Those that can evolve and adapt to changing conditions appear to lead the most successful organizations, but are not often recognized as the best leaders. No one set of characteristics in a person will fit each situation or challenge, but you need the ability to understand the context of the facts in order to chart a course and engage people in solutions. Without buy-in, the problem will not be solved and most challenges require thought on the part of others who are committed to the same goals as the leader. The leadership team concepts allows for the ability to delegate to those closest to the situation, or with the best skill set to resolve it, will achieve the best result and create personal accountability by creating a personal stake in the solution.
Engagement identifies another emerging hallmark of leadership which is that we all want to succeed and leaders tend to nudge their followers toward that success. Good leaders always backstop their charges, and understand that not all situations will be resolved ideally and that there may be multiple means to resolve the problem. That gives the followers the ability to “gamble” on innovative solutions without the fear of reprisals. The fear of reprisals will eliminate innovation. What you want is to lead your organization to be innovative. Organizations that foster innovation can become more effective in their industry. Isn’t that what we want? Fostering innovation is how Google develops a lot of its applications. They call it 20% time, where employees get to work on anything they want, with anyone they want, except their own projects. Think GoogleEarth, gmail, and many others. Dan Pink did an excellent discussion in his best seller “Drive.” I recommend you check it out. But then we need to ask, “When was the last time we tried something like 20% time in the utility industry?”