Transforming to be Great at Leadership

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LEADERSHIP INTIATIVES FOR EXCELLENCE (LIFE) SERIES

The foundational principles of leadership don’t change over time. They are indeed timeless. How do you transform to be great at what you do in leadership? We will be discussing the key practices that great leaders have in common. While character, patience and empathy are important for a leader to sustain their leadership, they are not necessarily the behaviours and practices needed to get to the top of their chosen profession. To be sure, Brian Dodd writes, “there are times when a leader’s talent can take them to places where their character cannot sustain them.”

But that’s another story. Here, we would like to focus on the achievement side of the equation. What is required to be great at what you do in your leadership role? The principles apply across all organisations and contexts. All of these principles are documented and are being successfully applied by great leaders in organisations of all types.

From my experience of how several individuals and colleagues as great leaders inspired me – with some carrying me on their shoulders as mentors and impacting my life in various institutions, organisations and associations over the past six decades – there are many things great leaders have done and will always do to achieve great success with insights. Let’s explore some of them.

Great leaders build great teams

Great leaders are part of selfless, humble teams who are committed to one another’s success. Your team is your primary difference maker. Great leaders look for skill, work ethics and passion when building a team.

Great leaders are humble

Humble leaders do not deny their talents but are thankful for them. Humble leaders acknowledge that no matter how good they are, they are in constant need of support. All successful leaders must be servant-leaders first. They acknowledge that they have been granted opportunities, not for personal gain, but for the betterment of others. Humble leaders know they have not arrived. The mission and vision of what they are trying to accomplish is too important to remain the same.

Great leaders continually improve

Are you willing to be rebuilt? Pride and arrogance are enemies of continual improvement. A great leader never asks, “Am I part of this organisation’s past?” but, “Am I going to be a part of the future?” Continual improvement assures sustainability and continual options.

Great leaders work hard – very hard

Many leaders think their talent and competence alone will get them to where they need to go, but hard work will always beat talent and competence, when talent and competence don’t work hard. “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief.” No one is there to applaud the lonely work, but everyone applauds its results.

Great leaders form strong relationships

One of the most impressive things about great leaders is the continual focus on relationships. There is only one thing in your business which appreciates—your people. The most important relationship a leader needs to cultivate and protect is the relationship with their family. If you want to accomplish anything great as a leader, you must surround yourself with competent staff. This is worth thinking about as almost all important decisions made about you and your career take place when you are not in the room. So, always leave a trail of kindness and respect behind you.

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Great leaders make others better

No matter how talented you are, you need someone who can make you better. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” Coach, mentor, teach and train others around you. Encourage them to be better than the way you met them.

Great leaders show consistency

Organisations and their people suffer because of a lack of appreciation for consistent excellence. No athlete ever demonstrated consistent excellence better than the legendary Hank Aaron. We over-celebrate big results and under-appreciate consistent excellence. Great leaders remind us that greatness is not always achieved through short-term spectacular results but through long-term consistency.

Great leaders give generously

The model of a generous life is investing in spiritual truth, intellectual capital, money, praise, encouragement, influence, and joy in other people’s lives. Great leaders look for every opportunity to make investments in the lives of the people they lead.

Great leaders lead by example

You cannot lead by example if you do not effectively lead yourself first. Great leaders understand their talents and invest in them to create strengths, which are then synergized to create masteries. Leading by example means putting the mission of your organisation above your personal aspirations. Great leaders, who lead by example, model and fight for unity. They work with examples rather than different rules or new policy statements daily on the notice boards. Ego is not an area of interest to great leaders.

Great leaders deliver results

Achieving results is one of the primary things separating great leaders from all others. Delivering results requires preparation, decisiveness, talent, limiting unnecessary mistakes, energy, continual improvement, confidence, good health, and passion.

Five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady said, “Every year has its challenges in different ways … you’ve always got to work on something.” Great leaders also deliver under pressure. Brady said, “To me, what separates really good players from great players—execute well under pressure. The biggest game. The biggest stage. That’s what playing quarterback is all about.” A leader’s character and people skills make someone want to follow them. The ability to deliver results determines if someone actually will follow them.

Great leaders build great relationships

In life you’ll realise there is a purpose for everyone you meet. Some will test you, some will use you, and some will teach you. But most importantly, great leaders will bring out the best in you. As we meet people we are destined to meet on the job, we have to learn how to build the best of relationships with each of them. These relationships will become great assets in our future, depending on the way we manage each day of our interactions with each one of them.

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Great leaders become a flame of hope

You never really know how much the people around you are hurting. You could be standing next to someone who is completely broken inside and you wouldn’t even know it. So, great leaders don’t deprive someone of hope; it might be all they have. And remember that there are two ways to spread light in this world: You can either be a flame of hope, or a mirror that reflects it. Great leaders become one of the two at every opportunity they have.

Great leaders meet others halfway

The most important trip you will likely take in life is meeting others halfway. Great leaders achieve far more by working with people, rather than against them. Giving someone else a voice, and showing them that their ideas matter will have a long-lasting, positive impact on the both of you.

Great leaders create relationships that reflect happiness

Happiness is an inside job. Great leaders know that relationships are simply the mirrors of your happiness; they reflect it and help you celebrate it. They are mirrors because they are a perfect reflection of your thoughts and beliefs. To reflect means to encourage you when you feel weak and challenge you when you feel strong, thereby returning you to your centre. And to celebrate is to share the natural ease and joy of living from your centre of living in the now with clarity.

Great leaders show compassion

Great leaders may not be CEOs of firms listed on NYSE, or heads of their global organisations. The son who tends to his chronically ill mother, ignoring his own exhaustion; the neighbour who gives a helping hand, even as his own needs go unanswered; the one who donates a couple dollars to someone in need, even if she has to break her last five-dollar bill to do it are all great leaders. Maybe you don’t hear the names of these unsung heroes in the news, but surely the universe hears their names and treats them accordingly.

Great leaders recognise that time is everything

Great Leaders understand that timing is everything. There is a time for silence; a time to let go and allow your friends to launch themselves into their own destiny; and a time to cheer for their victories, or help them pick up the pieces, when it’s all over.

Great leaders use actions to communicate

Great leaders know that actions are the loudest form of communication. What you do speaks so loudly that others will have a hard time hearing what you say. So, great leaders practise what they preach or they don’t preach at all – but rather model or walk the talk. And remember that there is often a major gap between what someone says and what they do. Characterise people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words.

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Great leaders create freedom and abundance

A loving relationship creates freedom and abundance. Love doesn’t hurt. Love is not the problem. Don’t blame love if a failed relationship interfered with your other important relationships, or robbed you of your self-esteem and personal freedoms. No, don’t blame love. For it wasn’t love that stole from you; it was possession; it was obsession; it was manipulation; it was confusion. Love had nothing to do with your situation. For love doesn’t close the door against all that is good; it opens it wide to let more goodness in. Love creates freedom and abundance.

Great leaders pay attention to quiet gestures

People are more of what they keep silent about than what they say. Great leaders actually pay attention to their followers’ quiet gestures. If you cannot understand someone’s silence, you will have a hard time understanding their words.

Great leaders respond to anger with kindness and respect

What others say and do is often based entirely on their own self-reflection. When you have people speaking to you who are angry and upset, and as a great leader you nevertheless continue to treat them with kindness and respect, you place yourself in a position of great power. You become a means for the situation to be graciously diffused and healed.

A teacher once said, “When somebody backs themselves into a corner, look the other way until they get themselves out; and then act as though it never happened.” Allowing people to save face in this way, and not reminding them of what they already know is not their most intelligent behaviour, is an act of great kindness. This is possible when we realise that people behave in such ways because they are in a place of great suffering. People react to their own thoughts and feelings and their behaviour often has nothing directly to do with you.

Great leaders give without expectation

Great leaders know that sincerity is giving without expectation. Good character and true friendship are all about how a person nurtures another person who is vulnerable and can give nothing in return. So, when you have been through tough times and come out the other side, look around you. The people still standing beside you are your true friends.

Great leaders recognise the transient nature of most relationships

Great leaders also know that not every relationship is meant to last forever. Some people aren’t meant to stay in your life. Some people are just passing through to bring you something – perhaps a lesson you need to learn, or a memory that makes you smile years later. When the time comes, it’s okay to let go and move on with your life.

Lere Baale is the chief executive, Business School Netherlands International, Nigeria (www.bsnmba.org); and agile transformation consultant, Howes Group (www.howesgroup.com)

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