This is the 9th in a series of 12 articles about mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned building a non-profit foundation since 1997.
Leadership is the most written about subject in business. I’ve read twenty or more books on it, attended dozens of classes and seminars and read hundreds of articles.
And it’s still not easy for me to put a finger on leadership.
Of all the books, I still recommend “On Becoming a Leader,” by Warren Bennis, written more than twenty years ago. For classes, I score Collins “Level 5 Leadership” above all others. And you can find several of my favorite leadership articles in the library on this website.
Lately, I’ve been trying to add my own empirical data to the learning. Who has led me? What characteristics did they demonstrate? What made me want to invest my time and resources in their organizations?
I still think of myself as 40, not 60, so it still surprises me when I realize I have a lot of data to work from:
· Our foundation has invested in over 100 organizations so far
· Our non-profit and for-profit lending companies have served over 30 small and large organizations
· For 17 years I’ve met for a full day each month with 15 other CEO/owners in a peer group called Vistage (formerly TEC).
My summary view is that every business and non-profit can easily trace its success or failure in some manner to leadership. Effective organizations are people-motivated and aligned by a good leader.
So below, I’ll list the characteristics I’ve most consistently seen in the successful entrepreneurs, CEOs and non-profit organization leaders who I’ve worked with.
1. Acquisitive…..good leaders I’ve worked with crave learning and strive to acquire more knowledge. The most effective acquisitive leaders get most of their learning from others who have faced similar situations and issues. So, great leaders are not necessarily inventors, yet always they are builders of knowledge.
2. Risk managers…..not risk takers. The best leaders measure risk and reward dispassionately. They calculate the “best case-worst case” before acting. Prominent in their calculation is each decision’s effect on the people they lead.
3. Realistic……..a consistent leadership vacuum is the avoidance of reality. All of us face one or more overwhelming issues. Poor leaders avoid seemingly insurmountable issues. Good leaders accept them, face them down and try to pull that issue apart piece by piece. Whether successful in overcoming them or not, these folks are more fun to follow.
4. Planners…….my first question of anyone we might work with is: “Do you have a written plan?” The second question is “May I see it and critique it?” Poor leaders answer “no” to one of these questions. Good leaders have a clear, written plan. Great leaders have an open plan, welcoming all who are willing to help make the plan better. NOTE: Many poor leaders hide behind a voluminous “strategic plan,” knowing that if they can’t fully understand it, no one else will either. J
5. Customer focused………..the most consistent quality of a poor leader is one who focuses internally. “Dilbert” and TV’s “Office” demonstrate my point – strategy makes little sense. Any organization that focuses, even benevolently, from the inside out do worse than ones who build from outside, in. All success – profit and non – begins with a customer.
6. Numbers driven……the most effective non-profit leaders know that they cannot create, maintain or grow their mission without making the numbers work. I majored in political science so by definition I hate numbers. But I’ve learned the hard way that both my social venture and business interests can only be served effectively if I first measure decisions mathematically.
7. Humble…..the surprise of Collins’ Level 5 leadership theory. Humble people make the best leaders because we find them easy to follow. Humble leaders don’t care who gets the credit (in fact they know success has many parents) and so they find it easy to encourage others. Therein lies their power.
8. Resourceful………….whether working with plentiful resource or none, great leaders know how to leverage whatever they have. When it’s a lot, they use what they have wisely. When little is available, they get resourceful. The great start-ups I’ve worked with take the approach of “who can we borrow resources from?”
9. Authentic………..I save this for last because it’s the final litmus test of great leadership, in my view. It’s been said that “people with great strengths have great weaknesses.” Authentic leaders recognize their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They allow people to see both and can openly discuss them. Who follows a phony? Other phonies.
Is there one leader I work with who encompasses all these qualities? Yes, actually there is more than one. Maybe I’ll feature them in later articles. These articles would lend reality for my points by citing real leaders I know and follow.
“Do-gooders” fool themselves just like all business people do. And those willing to fool themselves and others, consciously or unconsciously, waste time and money.
How do I know?
I’ve done it – repeatedly.
It was only after I got a headache that I stopped beating my head against the wall of non-leadership.