Has the strength of corporate leadership ever been more important? Change and transformation are extreme. Competition is smarter and bolder. But here’s another factor that may be the most important of all. This could be labeled the “age of uncertainty.”
The world of business is less predictable than at any time I can remember. There are no guaranteed answers to today’s challenges. But there are what I call a short list of “leadership essentials” that are crucial to moving companies toward their goals.
1. Deal with the unknown
So much is changing that conventional wisdom and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking should be questioned. This is a time of pioneering. Leaders must have the courage to go first. Even though the path is not clearly marked, leaders must venture into unexplored territory, and search for the new opportunities. Leaders today must be discoverers.
Think of the great discovers of the western world – the Vikings, Columbus, and Lewis and Clark. They had no maps. They had no guides. All they had were there own abilities and a strong belief that opportunity, in some form, lay just ahead.
2. Define and model core values
The most important question that leaders must answer is What do we believe in? The answer defines the core values that form a company’s foundation. They drive everything a company does. The tough part comes next. Leaders must act congruently with these values and demonstrate them in all they say and do.
An even tougher moment comes when a company’s values are tested by the market place. The easy short-term solution may be to abandon these values. Doing so however will have a powerfully negative long-term effect. It can erode the company’s heart and soul! I have watched many companies abandon their values, only to lose their position of prominence in their industry. This is a failure of leadership.
3. Set the tone
Tone is the long-term spirit of an organization. It’s always set from the top down, always! Exceptional leaders accept this responsibility. Once again, modeling is the key.
Leaders must be passionate examples of the tone they want to instill in their companies – things like optimism, commitment, risk taking, ethical behavior, and accountability. Leaders must mirror their messages and in doing so, they become teachers.
When leaders walk their talk they establish their credibility. Employees are more likely to choose to follow and leaders can’t function effectively without followers. Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin.
4. Attract and retain employees
The greatest form of competition today is not for a share of the market. It’s for a share of the pool of exceptional people in the work force who can propel a company into a leading position. The company that loses the people race stands to lose the market race.
This means leaders must establish a corporate climate that attracts and retains the finest people available. Increasingly, it is the worker-friendly companies that create a climate of trust in which employees value their jobs and offer their deepest levels of support and commitment.
Worker-friendly however is not just about wages and benefits. It’s much more than that. The old-style management days of “command and control” are over. They have been replaced by a style of leadership that places a premium on the leader’s ability to “communicate and influence.”
Of course people want to know how to do their jobs. But more than that, today’s exceptional employees also want to know why they are doing them. They want their leaders to answer the question Why are we in business? The answer to this question energizes a company and its people with a sense of purpose. With purpose comes fulfillment, and from fulfillment comes commitment.
In these circumstances, employees don’t just work for a company. They belong to an organization. They become members. And with membership comes the most powerful form of ownership, psychological ownership, and commitment takes on a deeper meaning.
5. Unleash intellectual capital
The key currency in the world today is not the US dollar or the Euro. The key currency, the most valuable currency in business terms, is intellectual capital.
When people are asked how much of their brainpower they use, a common response is 20%. The actual percentage is estimated to be much lower. Leaders understand this. They recognize that one of their major challenges is to unleash the latent intellectual capital that resides within every employee in their organization. In part, this is accomplished by establishing a culture of professional development and learning.
Corporate culture drives employee behavior. A corporate culture that supports and celebrates professional development and learning is essential to developing human capital and releasing the brainpower that already exists. Exceptional leaders help employees to understand that being a continuous student is not an option. It’s an expectation!
6. Refocus the company
Even for the best of companies, this journey through change can run into difficulty. The unexpected may happen. Failures can occur. Clarity is replaced by cloudiness, and employees become lost.
When it happens, exceptional leaders step in and refocus the team. Through their words and actions, they reconnect employees with the core values of the company. They bring the team back to the meaning and spirit of its purpose. They highlight the vision of the organization, and help employees to identify with this preferred picture and direction.
Clarity is restored and the team finds its way again.
How do you measure up?
These six leadership essentials do not stand alone. The list of things that organizations need from leaders is a longer one. But the essentials described here begin to define the companies that set the standards in their industry.
As a leader, are you consistently providing the essentials your organization needs?