A few years ago, students at UBI (United Business Institute in Brussels) where given the choice between a course on leadership or entrepreneurship. Almost all of them choose leadership. This confirmed our perception that people remain fascinated by the alpha-wolf. As we all know the wealth of a nation is its entrepreneurs but history is made by leaders, good or bad. Whatever, leaders exercise a sort of fascination. The recent American series, “The house of cards” is about an alpha pair. Alphas my achieve their status by means of strength or aggression or through social efforts and building alliances within a given group.
There are mainly two classical discussions related to the subject. Are human leaders born that way or can people be trained to become leaders? If so, will they be as efficient? The second question is the difference between leaders and managers. The Harvard Business Review Magazine for which I have been a subscriber for decades has covered that issue so often. Likewise numerous issues have covered leadership, if not even more.
Let us first look at the second question, which is the easiest one to answer and for which I refer to numerous articles. In a nutshell, a manager’s goal is to have things done based on the leader’s vision about what needs to be done. I recently read in INTERNET what the perfect robot manager would be like? Unfortunately I did not record the exact source. “It would arguably be objective, transparent, unselfish, and apolitical. Because of this, it would assign the right task to every person and reward unselfish team behaviours, creating a culture of trust and keeping morale high. It would monitor individual and team performance with the precision of the best quantified-self app, and provide real-time feedback to boost everybody’s productivity. Undoubtedly, it would operate according to data rather than intuition and make only evidence-based recommendations. In short, the perfect robot manager would be utterly predictable – and completely boring”. It is a funny vision and is not for tomorrow.
Let us focus on the first question related to leadership. According to Jack Welch in his book with a great title “Winning” 1 he mentions the eight points of what leaders do. I quote him:
- They relentlessly upgrade their team
- The live and breathe their vision
- They exude positive energy and optimism
- They establish trust and transparency
- They have the courage to take unpopular decisions
- They probe and push with curiosity
- They set the example
- They celebrate
I want to underline some key words, which one does not immediately relate to leadership, such as: upgrading, trust, transparency, courage and example. It is so much more that the alpha character. This can be learned and practiced. It is often a matter of exposure, training and attitude. It is not necessarily inborn.
Leaders are decision makers. It seldom a matter of intuition but the examination of every alternative. They wonder if previous decisions are still applicable, make decision for the short time but with the long term in mind, are not afraid of changing decisions if need be. Above all the consider the implications of each decision. They wonder what can go wrong and analyse possible outcomes. This is all base on a balance between intuition and logic, the use of the two systems as described by Kahneman 2. They sense when a decision has a large element of chance in them. They are not afraid of challenging the company’s culture if need be whilst they are not afraid of delegating a maximum to think and prepare for alternatives. Furthermore, when it proves that they have taken a wrong decision, they take fast action and last but not least, they never postpone vital decision.
Of all this what is inborn and what can be acquired? Hard work! Leaders are not necessarily the people who are flashy, and who fascinate one way or the other. Outstanding leaders are not the people who self-promote and take credit for others’ achievements, or have mastered the art of politics and upward career management. Outstanding leaders are probably not born not unlike Olympic athletes. Gold winning athletes are the result of hard, very hard work and numerous sacrifices. Great artists follow the same pattern, great leaders as well. It is a matter of attitude enabling to take a helicopter view when needed, adapt, control, understand, and cultivate confidence and collaboration. If you want to be a leader you may wish to start with leading yourself.
I do not know if our students were aware of this all but they would certainly agree with point eight of Jack Welch’s list!