What is leadership?

I was asked recently to put together my thoughts on a philosophy for leadership. While putting this together I had to ask myself, what is leadership? How does one define it?

Leadership is, academically at least, quite difficult to define. Modern leadership scholars “can’t quite come up with a common definition for leadership”, leadership will most likely mean different things to different people (Northouse 2012). Recent definitions tend to share a few common themes: getting followers to do as the leader wishes, influencing people in a non-coercive way, traits (qualities or characteristics that leaders have) and transformation.

Some of the more useful definitions I’ve come across are:

“a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers M. (1997) An integrative theory of leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.)

“acts by persons which influence other persons in a shared direction” (Seeman, 1960)

“when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (Burns 1978)

Probably the most important element to me is that leadership is an on-going, continuous process and, reading between the lines of these definitions, it can’t really be viewed as a single act in isolation.

The last definition listed highlights the importance of those following the leader as well as the leader. The leader cannot exist without those that undertake the journey or task with them, and the leader must, in many ways be driven by those around them.

These definitions also point to the changing nature of leadership, that is no one is the leader in all situations, instead it changes based on the people involved, the task/direction, and the means of engaging with each other.

As you can see, I lean away from trait oriented (traits are qualities or characteristics that leaders have) definitions as for every trait there appears to be examples of contradicting traits that can result in leadership occurring. For example, Michael Dell is an introvert, yet Richard Branson is clearly extroverted. There are also some that work only within the context of a commercial organisations and clearly have a business context however I find these to be unhelpful, as I believe true leadership applies across all contexts. One cannot be a leader in the workplace without being a leader elsewhere in their lives.

 

Happy birthday Terem – shame the domain expired

We’re celebrating 2 years in business this month. With 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses failing within the first 18 months, I’m pretty happy that not only are we still here, we’re growingly strongly.

We’ve managed to double revenues and profits over the same quarter last year. In the last month we’ve hired a senior software engineer and a sales and marketing assistant.

How was I reminded of our birthday? Our domain expired and we couldn’t receive emails. It bought back a memory from two years ago, my credit card was charged for some domains I’d bought for a previous business that had failed. I’d set the previous business domains to auto-renew. I didn’t have much money so even though it was only $30-$60, it really stung. So, when I bought the domain for terem.com.au I said “no way am I going to auto-renew in case I annoyingly get charged again.”

Luckily a quick call to our domain name registrar sorted everything out and we were back in operation within an hour or so.

I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one this has happened to, Microsoft forgot to renew their hotmail.co.uk domain.

Introductions v Cold Emails

I just read an article on Mashable making “the case against business introductions” that mainly refers to Iris Shoor’s post where she discusses how she made appointments and sales at Twitter, LinkedIn and Github using a direct approach. She talks about how the direct approach led to better sales results than introductions.

I can see how this works if you know who you are targeting but introductions have provided Terem with new clients that could not have been gained through direct contact because we didn’t know they existed or had a need for what we do.

As a side note, her results fly in the face of those saying “cold calling doesn’t work”.

Employee reviews

With the quarterly reviews at Terem coming up again I decided to take a moment to consider the way I do reviews when there are no serious issues with an employee (serious issues need a different tack).

To me the purpose of a review is to two-fold (1) for you to understand how someone feels they are going and what they want to achieve and  (2) for you to gain feedback in how you and the business can improve.  Goal and performance tracking

My experience at my first real job when it came to performance reviews taught me that a yearly review just isn’t often enough. It isn’t enough for one overwhelming reason: people are the most important ingredients in a business so you need to be as close to them as possible, provide as much assistance as you can and help them develop.

Another important consideration is that people are now more mobile than ever when it comes to jobs. So it is vitally important to ensure continued goal alignment and regular reviews are a great way to ensure this happens.

I understand why Jeff Bezo’s asks people to send him a memo

“Full sentences are harder to write,” Bezos says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” (from CNN Money)

We have been debating taking two different approaches for implementing something with one of our clients. At the outset we were all favouring Option #2 but our client expressed a few concerns with it. Lucky they did.

I went to write them an email that was to describe the two options, weigh up the pros and cons and ultimately provide a recommendation. Secretly I wanted to convince them that the internally favoured Option #2 was the way to go.

Half way through the email I realised there was no point doing Option #2 at this stage and that in fact there weren’t two options, just a simple version and then an extended version of the same thing. Option #2 needed Option #1 to exist before it could be implemented.

As you can see my point of view completely changed, all because I took the time to write an email. It was all because I had to clearly articulate myself with the written word, full sentences, essay style.

This is the way to go.

As an aside, Option #2 was one of those slightly over complicated but very powerful but probably over engineered ideas common to software engineers.

Wheels falling off

One of the things I enjoy most about being in business is its ever changing nature. I’ve noticed a particular pattern that I liken to powering down a mountain at 1,000 miles per hour only to hit a bump and suddenly have your wheels start to fall of. You madly scramble to re-attach the wheels properly whilst still powering down the hill. Once you pull through you’re back powering down the mountain, feeling like an unstoppable F1 driver.

Like I said, I love this feeling. Especially that moment when you pull the wheels back on.

The bumps might come about because you’re growing – you’ve got to pull the team together for some extra effort until your new hire comes on – or they might come about because something didn’t go as planned.

Earlier in the business I’d get quite worried when we hit the bump. Overtime I’m getting better at seeing the bumps before they occur and having the confidence that we’ll pull the wheels back on.

Fun times.

Self evaluation using the Characteristics of Admired Leaders

Knowing that I’m always keen to devour anything related to personal development or business my wonderful wife Susie bought me “The Leadership Challenge” for Christmas.

Early on in the book Kouzes and Posner put forward the characteristics of admired leaders based on studies they’ve conducted asking leaders’ constituents to describe what they look for in a leader they would be most willing to follow. Over numerous studies four characteristics continue to stand out:

  1. Honesty
  2. Forward-thinking
  3. Competent
  4. Inspiring

I think that this list is a great tool for self evaluation purposes. If you are reflecting on something that occurred and wondering whether you lead the situation well then you can quickly evaluate yourself against these four characteristics.

I caution against using it  as a list of “things that I must do to be a good leader” because it lists the symptoms or effects of  the character, passion, commitment, beliefs and understanding operating on a deeper level. For example, a reader could take this as “well if I just act forward-thinking then I can lead people.” I personally believe that you must be forward thinking and being forward thinking comes from a deep interest in and understanding of the area you are leading people through. Similarly, a reader of the book might be tempted to think “well if I just act inspiringly then people will follow me.” But you can’t inspire others if you aren’t inspired yourself; when you are inspired yourself, that will just rub off on others. If you are looking to exhibit the characteristics that people look for in a leader then you need to look under the covers.


Scott Middleton
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