Essential Ingredients of Leadership Excellence



“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

– John Quincy Adams

(Continues from last edition)

Editor’s note: Our sincere apologies for not concluding the August edition of this column, titled “Good leaders drive culture and change.” The concluding part has been added below this piece.

  1. Use the seven most important words

A great mentor, Mr J. K. Adesina, back in the mid ‘80s came up with a great addition to the well-worn leadership lesson called “A Short Course in Human Relations”, which started with the six most important words (“I admit I made a mistake”), and ended with the one most important word (“we”) and the one least important word (“I”).

He did not think six were enough, and added seven more important words: “I don’t know, but I’ll and out”. I would hear about this one all the time. He was a very black-and-white person, and you either had a correct answer or you did not; there was no guessing around him.

He just had this uncanny way of knowing if you were unsure. It is not a crime to not know something, but it sure is if you are guessing and you turn out wrong.  He developed a robust marketing research department to find out facts and ensure well-informed leadership decisions. Those words stuck with me ever since.

Now, as a leader I am on the other side of that conversation all the time. It really boils down to two core leadership areas – setting proper expectations (you do not have to possess the answer for everything, but you should have the ability to find the answer), and trust (you do not have to fear retribution if you do not have an answer, but I trust that you can find it).

Remember – whenever you are stumped for an answer and are tempted to guess, just say the seven most important words instead

Pharm. Lere Baale
  1. Survey the landscape (and open your ears)

Your first three to six months on the job should be more of listening than talking.  Period.  There is no other way to really get a feel for your challenge and how to take it on than to talk to as many people as you can within the organisation you lead.   It’s also a show of respect that pays enormous dividends later in the process.

Mango,King of Fruits


  1. Define your battles

This isn’t what you think; these aren’t battles with people.   These are the feelings, attitudes, and concepts that you are going to have to fight successfully to be a winning leader.  Things like “we vs. they”, “trust vs. fear”, or “will to succeed vs. hope to survive”.   Once you’ve done your survey, write these down too, and discuss them with your team. When I did this, it made a really big difference.


  1. Align all the values

There needs to be a cause that everyone needs to rally around, but it must be based on common values.  Take the time to do this alignment.  In my case, at our consulting firm, we established three common values that served us well:  Character, Commitment and Competence.


  1. Establish the “immutables”

You’re now ready to lay down a few operational “immutables” – your leadership lines in the sand.  In my case, there were four:  Quality, Service, Leadership, and Accountability.   We were not going to compromise on ANY of these four things. For example, one of our favourite lines that came out of this was “We will not sacrifice quality at the altar of expediency”.   That sent the message loud and clear – and we had the leadership and accountability to back it up.


  1. Set the mantra

Great leaders need a mantra – that is, a key phrase or sentence that is transferred to the lips and hearts of all they lead (notice I didn’t call this a “mission statement”).  In our company, we used this:  “Working for you to provide quality service”.   We relentlessly pushed it, and I believe it was a critical factor in the exponential improvements we subsequently made.


  1. Relentlessly push three key metrics

We have to measure what we manage, and while all great businesses measure a lot of important things, there should always be a few that are tracked and known to ALL teammates.   We used four – Financial Results, Customers Perspectives, Operational Issues, Leadership, Learning and Development.  Note how these things could be tied to the values, the immutables, and the mantra.

How Nestle Nigeria Is Coping Despite Economic Meltdown – Ifezulike


  1. Connect it all to employee happiness (and yours)

If we focus on all of those other steps (the mantra, the metrics, the values, etc), we’ll succeed.  And guess what? That will also make us happy and fulfilled.    But here’s the really cool part – remember my “why?” back in step one?   It was – “make a difference for my teammates, my company, and myself”.  As much as it depends on you, try to make your employees happy.


  1. Never learn from someone threatened by excellence

Never limit yourself to accommodate the insecurities of others. Your goal as a leader seeking for excellence is your own personal excellence first – and as such do not curtail the development of your skills, self-confidence or courage for anyone.

If you are working for someone who is threatened by excellence, you are working for the wrong person and it can be very frustrating. If you are learning from someone who is threatened by excellence, you are learning the wrong lessons. If you are learning from a man who is scared of being eclipsed, you have already eclipsed him.

My experience shows that those who are not interested in leadership excellence are usually threatened by it.  You have to carefully manoeuvre your way to a leadership role to promote a culture of leadership excellence.  You cannot give what you don’t have.


  1. Make trustworthy friends

As a leader, you must surround yourself with friends you can trust if you are keen on leadership excellence. No man ever achieved anything great alone. It has never happened. Build trust by being trustworthy, and cultivating a shrewd sense of character. Do not allow yourself to fall into believing what you want to believe about a person because they are beautiful, strong and talented. Be honest with yourself. Make trustworthy friends and be trustworthy yourself.


  1. Be relentlessly open about your intentions

Inspire others to join with you by the boldness and openness with which you act. Do not worry about others moving to cut off your plans. Your bold and decisive action will cut through such scheming, and seize the initiative. Learn the skill of quick and decisive action as a leader and you are on your road to excellence.

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  1. Always say exactly enough to be understood perfectly

Language is a tool. Use it. Learn how to use it as a master violinist plays a violin. Its purpose is simple – the communication of ideas, feelings and concepts. Use it to communicate your intentions and plans, to inspire others to join with you. Just don’t talk too much for too long. You have work to do. Presentation can make the difference. That is a major strength in leaders like Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, former presidents of the USA.


  1. Your reputation is incidental

Good reputation is symptomatic of leadership excellence, and not causal – that is to say, it happens around you when you cultivate excellence inside yourself and live courageously. Do not hide from reputation, and do not be ashamed to stand up and be counted; but do not get lost in its pursuit. If you focus on your reputation in and of itself, that reputation will have no substance to back it up.

If you concentrate primarily on excellence, and make reputation a secondary concern, then you will have a powerful foundation, should your reputation come under assault. Never attack the reputation of others. Instead, look into their hearts, and see if they pursue excellence, or something else.


  1. Do not shy from attention

This is a world of indolence and apathy. Many people are seduced by the myriad of toys, games, flashing lights and drama which surround us in the modern age. As such, mediocrity is commonplace. But the potential for excellence is within everyone. As such, you must expect that your excellence will draw attention. Use it. Use that attention to project your excellence into the world, to inspire others. Do not stand out just for the sake of standing out, but stand out by the quality of your life, and the person you are. And do not hide yourself. Let others learn not only from your successes but from your mistakes as well.



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