Thoughts on Leadership - By Mike Hayes

In the wake of Veterans Day, I find it appropriate not only to thank those who served, but also recognize the importance of what they can bring to an organization. The veterans I know can give countless examples of intense training, real world situations, technical skills, project management and meeting deadlines. However, in talking to those hiring, a universal trait is often assumed from veterans: leadership.

I feel it's safe to say that anyone who has studied business or worked in an office environment for more than a month has received something in an attempt to educate on leadership. As with any topic, the huge volume of information contains some great tools, and conversely some without the right context can be harmful.

When discussing leadership, I feel it is important to understand the word at its widest scope: "one who leads." Using part of the word base in the definition would infuriate my ninth grade English teacher.

Can we assume a leader is one who collects followers?  I feel this is not a complete answer, but does add insight. Those who collect followers through fear, intimidation or scapegoating are not leaders in it the word’s intended sense. Leadership is one who collects followers for the right reasons versus simply winning a popularity contest on reinforcing manipulation based tactics.  

What are these right reasons?  Looking at lists of those universally accepted as great leaders similarities can add some context, but it’s difficult to find one characteristic that binds them all together.

Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower. Douglas MacArthur, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs... and many more. 

All gained followers behind success of one type or another. A vision of the future, communication of universal principles, speaking truth to power, achieving the height of political position, leading a military campaign against seemingly impossible odds, creation of an industry, overseeing the rise of the most profitable company ever.  Many look to the commonalities among these leaders. However, with such an eclectic group of personalities, the characteristics are difficult to distill to one basic quality. 

Leaders can be great communicators, but not all are known as great public speakers. Leaders can be innovators, but not all innovators are leaders. Many stand for principles that were known well before them, others shake up the status-quo.  In many ways leaders make the lives of those around them better, but they are not immune from mistakes. The personal life of Steve Jobs who for many years ignored responsibility for his daughter was less than enviable. Clearly leaders are still human in their ability to fail at being infallible.  An ability to set strategy, communicate and conduct strategic planning are important factors as they support working towards a vision. However, on their own they do not fully support the definition of a great leader.

Leadership consultant and author John Maxwell looks at leadership in the following stages: 

  1. Position
  2. Permission
  3. Production
  4. People development
  5. Pinnacle

These stages are somewhat self-explanatory. Position refers to position within a company, or position title. Permission is from those being led, often referred to as buy-in. Production is a measure of competency, and often metric justification of the leader’s impact. People development is a commitment to those following, a recognition of talent and sharing of specific knowledge to sustain the leader’s vision. The pinnacle represents total association of the leader with the vision.  

This thought process positions personal characteristics as the price of admission to the leadership process. They are guides along the way rather than the key components of being a leader. It requires more of the individual and gives support to those who are multi-dimensional- those who can add value across many levels of an organization. Understanding and competency across multiple levels can give more insight into an organization than perfect mastery of one.  It also shows scalability. One may have a relatively small base of production, or only a few people being mentored/developed. Success can then lead to a larger position, where permissions are increased, greater productivity shown, increased the pool of developmental talent, all repeating until the pinnacle is earned. Each level builds upon the last while the end-state, having a name that is synonymous with the pinnacle, requires each step along the journey.   

Becoming a leader is a process.  It relies on many steps that are supported by individual talents, but not exclusive to a select few. Having a vision with an understanding of your strengths, weaknesses and knowledge of strategic planning is a good start. Where it takes you is up to you.