I don’t read leadership books, though I’m told there’s a glut of them on the market. I also don’t pretend to know how to lead companies other than those who see creativity as their central reason for being. I do, however, have some opinions on leadership, especially during challenging times.
The commonality among the varying styles of successful leadership is that they must evolve around the character, values, belief systems and personality of the person at the top. They must also have a genuineness about them. It can’t be faked or people will smell it and refuse to follow. Employees follow real people whose actions demonstrate by specific example, not by overall dictate.
Leaders need to be seen as well as heard. Employees gain confidence from a CEO who walks among them with purpose and emotional intelligence. The rank and file are affirmed by leaders who know their name, know what they do and what they have to do to succeed. Identification is a powerful management tool. So is an inclusive culture. When leaders are seen they’re also more likely to be believed, trusted and respected, and are given more credit for vision and commitment.
Leaders who issue rah-rah, derisive or threatening e-mails are viewed as less human with less emotional skin in the game — more about themselves and less about the organization. Leaders who lead from afar are almost always doomed to failure.
The most effective leadership transforms the middle and entry level of organizations. This is where much of the work comes from and where morale is most likely to be negative, not to mention the source of tomorrow’s “star” performers. Great leaders understand that for maximum enterprise effectiveness, everyone needs to feel close to and supported by the CEO. Nothing does that like being among the troops — especially in creative organizations.
I know it’s in vogue for consultants to talk about the “special skill sets” required to lead in bad times compared to good times. I don’t buy that one. Brilliant leaders are at their best when challenges appear. They inevitably rise to the occasion and exceed expectations by executing the fundamentals well and by urgently asking more of themselves so they can ask more of others. There is no special “playbook” to call on. There are no secrets. Just more of the same, only with more intensity.
It almost always comes down to clarity of vision, the courage to stay with established fundamental principles and the willingness to be in the front lines in ways that let people know they’re in it until the ship turns. The most effective incentive is the promise of getting back to winning ways. In turbulent times, more than ever, actions need to be aligned with words.
Consultants frequently remind us that more often than not, legacy practices hold organizations back. But if you look into these established ways of doing business, you’ll find they are mostly based on “place and time,” and not reflective of foundational, universal beliefs. That being the case, good leaders always challenge conventions and conventional thinking. By doing so, they find opportunity.
The trick is to make the changes in ways that are productive, not destructive. Great leaders adapt. New techniques, new styles, new skill sets are language geared to consultants — and, of course, their subsequent fees.
I do, however, have some opinions on leadership, especially during challenging times, which I see as every day going forward.
Pat Fallon is chairman emeritus of Fallon Worldwide.