A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.
~ American General Douglas MacArthur

During our collective 60-year careers that have spanned from being corporate executives to external consultants, we have worked with countless people in leadership positions who have struggled to achieve traction in their organizations.  Our experience suggests that there are five distinct leadership “derailers”:

  • Lack of Vision/Strategic Direction:  Besides being visionaries themselves, great leaders engage their management team to understand the business strategy and more importantly feel just as passionate about it. They need to feel comfortable and confident enough to be loyal…even follow blindly. Think General MacArthur and his troops.
  • Lack of Transparency:  Like paisley ties, opaque is out. Today’s employees want to be a part of the process and yes, they want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some things may remain private — mergers and acquisition deals, perhaps IP development and/or R and D, but the business plan should be transparent! Employees need to have a line of sight and understand what they do to make the dials move in the desired direction!
  • Tell vs. Ask Attitude:  This one is very obvious but it’s a topic we coach often on. No one likes to work with, or for, a drill sergeant or micromanager. Similar to transparency, employees want to be included in the process and prefer to be asked their opinion versus being told constantly what to do. Successful leaders are open to ideas, innovation, AND criticism. They don’t tell, they ask and incorporate appropriate input.
  • Taking Credit, But Not Responsibility: The great leaders of the world take responsibility for business decisions — good or bad. That’s very different than taking credit. When a company thrives it’s because of the hard work of employees, and that’s where credit is due. When a company fails to thrive it is on the shoulders of the leadership — always.
  • Having a “Do As I Say Not As I Do” Mentality:  Another obvious issue, but one we often see.  Leaders must “lead” by example. If you wouldn’t do it yourself, never ask your team to do it for you. Remember the adage: All for one and one for all.

We recently sponsored a research project that interviewed over 200 high performing executives to identify what were the leadership attributes that separated those who “walked on water”, from those who are “treading water”, from those leaders who are “drowning”.  The most effective leaders:

  1. Think strategically (they are great chess players) but have great executional skills.  This starts with strong strategy development skills that draws upon “fact based” information from both the external environment (e.g. customers, industry data – size of markets, growth rates, profitability, competitors, customer feedback) and the internal environment  (sources of competitive advantage, strengths, core capabilities, etc.) to identify growth platforms that are attainable. Competitive advantage and growth will not be achieved by focusing inordinately on having the best written vision and mission statement – that is a feel good activity.
  2. Understand their organizations business performance drivers. It is not uncommon even at the executive leadership level to not have consensus on the cause and effect of key outcomes.  For example, if you poll the executive team of a company about the number one thing that drives revenue you must have absolute consensus on the business drivers and NOT a scatter gram of answers all over the place.
  3. Use metrics to focus efforts.  Many of the executives reported using a balanced scorecard of metrics at the enterprise-wide level that included leading metrics that cascade from the business drivers to predict organizational performance and 3-4 categories of metrics such as operational efficiency, financial performance, innovation, customer performance, and people/organizational performance.  These metrics were cascaded down to each function, core processes, and individual/teams to ensure organizational alignment.
  4. Create meaningful consequences for (good/bad performance) to hold staff accountable.  Most organizations say they pay for performance but don’t really differentiate rewards or create consequences for poor performance.  Companies today need to take a page out of the playbook of investment banking, major consulting companies, and the GE’s of the world.  Dead weight is terminated not transferred to another unit and all forms of compensation (base, bonus and LTI) are awarded in a manner that promotes desired behaviors and minimizes undesired ones (e.g. lack of sense of urgency, calculated risk taking)
  5. Are comfortable in their own skin.  Good leadership does not equal being liked. One of the executives we interviewed had a great quote that we would like to share that sums up the importance of this attribute.  He said “show me a leader everyone likes and you will find a leader who avoids making a tough decision”.
  6. Attract, develop, and promote the right talent based on impact not on ancillary factors.  Unfortunately too many organizations based talent acquisition and in some cases career progression on pedigree (are they Ivy League, are they ex P and G or GE, do they have the same socio demographic as the leadership team).  The most effective leaders hire people to balance out their team in terms of skills, style, and experience.
  7. Remember too much collaboration equals abrogation.  The most effective leaders are fully cognizant that they own 51% of EVERY vote in their organization.  They are adept at  incorporating input from appropriate stakeholders but are NOT afraid to make unilateral decisions when necessary.

Respect is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.
~ Richard Branson

Leaders are not born, they evolve and grow based on nurturing/mentoring, the culture of their company, and the development opportunities afforded them.   In the end, it really is about integrity, being human, and treating your team with respect and dignity — that’s the secret sauce of leadership.

Employees come first. They are treated as if they are the most important asset in the company, for good reason! Next in line are the customers. If the employees are treated well, they will be fiercely loyal and in turn will take care of customers and clients. Last on the pecking order are shareholders, not because they aren’t important, but because when the first two align, shareholders will do well.

Most leaders may think creating culture and leading with integrity looks easy, but it isn’t really. Creating a culture of happy, loyal employees takes effort, dedication, and yes, integrity. You can apply this approach to any team, but it has particular resonance at the top. When C-suite leaders embrace this philosophy, the trickle-down effect will be extraordinary and create a true coaching, mentoring culture.

In the end, it really is about integrity, being human, and treating your team with respect and dignity — that’s the secret sauce of leadership. You can take lessons from Richard Branson, or even your competition, if they are thriving and attracting top talent.