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Leadership Essentials

While addressing a panel on Change Management last month, I was asked:

What does Leadership mean to me?
What are the essential characteristics a leader must possess?

Enough and more has been written on this topic, and of course, there is no right answer to either of these questions.

That said, I have had plenty of time to reflect on this over the years, including a long list of observations on what not to do. Here is a distillation of my thoughts, from first-hand experiences as well as my readings on the subject…

1. Competence

This refers to the Technical and Functional skills you are responsible for.

If you lead Engineering, you have to be able to empathize with and lead engineers. If you command soldiers, you should have been in the trenches yourself.

I believe, you can lead only if you can fundamentally understand the realities and challenges of the folks you are tasked with leading. There is simply no substitute for first-hand experience.

2. Clarity

This refers to clarity of Thought as well as Vision.

The folks you lead will always look up to you to define the direction of their efforts. Where are we headed? Why does it matter? That’s vision.

But even before that happens, one needs tremendous clarity of thought – to make sense of all the noise around you, so that you can focus on what really matters. That’s how you can take informed decisions that are appropriate to the context in which you operate.

3. Communication

Communication skills, both oral & written, form the foundation on which every thing else is built. Communication matters more than we realize.

It does not matter how brilliant the quality of ideas are, if they cannot be communicated effectively. It does not matter how grand the vision or mission is, if one cannot galvanize the resources needed to see it through.

4. Commitment

Commitment, not just to the Task, but also to the Team you lead.

Commitment is essential if you want to complete the task at hand. That means backing it with adequate resourcing, and ensuring the project is in line with organizational priorities.

More importantly, it also means a commitment to the team that you lead. A leader is obligated to his/her tribe, and must keep their interests in mind to ensure their progress. At times, that also means protecting the vulnerable, and having their back when things don’t quite go as planned, not just rewarding their efforts when they do.

Sadly, I have seen many senior executives that are otherwise effective in the first three of these, fall short in this fourth area. Sometimes, that’s because doing the right thing can have personal costs that may be too high to bear (at least for some).

5. Defining Standards

Finally, it is up to the Leader to set the bar – or raise it.

The minimum acceptable standards of Quality need to be clearly defined by those that are tasked with leading the team. If this is not done, team members can deliver varying levels of output, and (incorrectly) assume that it qualifies for a job well done.

Rarely, a team member will define their own benchmark for themselves, which may be even higher than the bar set for the team – but, that’s a topic for another post.

So, that’s my take on ‘Leadership’, and on the essential qualities a leader should possess. Hope you can put it to good use.

May the force be with you.