With all the palaver about leadership—behaviors, attributes, successes—it is all too easy to imagine that the subject is all about what it takes to be the next CEO, the paladin who rides a white horse at the head of a conquering army. Well, maybe. We do need some CEOs.
We also need CFOs (chief financial officers), CAOs (chief administrative officers), COOs (chief operating officers), CIOs (chief information officers), and CSCOs (chief supply chain officers). But it does seem that not nearly all of these exalted beings have fully internalized the tenets of 21st century leadership.
Everyone needs basic leadership lessons to help them become better managers and take organizations to greater heights, with better—and sustainable—people performance. But CFOs seem to get lost in the numbers, forsaking all other areas of focus. CAOs tend to get bogged down in processes and rigorous execution to the exclusion of expedient deviations and of the incorporation of human concerns in almighty policies.
COOs can jump the tracks of leadership behavior due to a singular focus on getting things done—now! CIOs may struggle with integrating human-level activities, preferences, biases, and imprinted behaviors in new or revised systems, taking refuge in the dispassionate technology that gallops into our previously quiet lives. And CSCOs, who need the leadership skill set as much as anyone—and are frequently so predisposed—too often have to short circuit doing the right thing the right way in order to meet the cascading imperatives imposed by peers and customers.WHY?
Some of these tendencies may be explained by the variations in how individuals' brains are hard-wired. Some may be reflections of last-century thinking about management. Still others could result from modeling the behaviors of respected—or feared—bosses.
Whatever, cures are possible, as well as desirable. Contrary to conventional wisdom, leaders are made, not born. No one can inherit genuine leadership ability; it must be learned.AND THE REST OF US?
News flash! Not all of us aspire to the C-suite. And few of us, even those with corporate ambitions, are anywhere near reaching the seats of power. But we all—each and every one—can benefit from learning and applying leadership skills and behaviors in our work lives and in life in general. Even the future CEO does not overnight become a leader simply because of an elevation in status.
A key to success in reaching authentic leadership status lies in repetition. Much like becoming the next Serena Williams, or Brett Favre, or Yo Yo Ma, it's vital to start early. Then, never let up, never stop, never mail it in, and never falter upon running up against the inevitable obstacles.EVERYDAY LEADERSHIP
Wherever you are in work, in life, in relationships, in the extracurriculars, it's an integral part of the process to demonstrate and refine leadership behaviors. The process? That's the building and layering that evolves into powerful and acknowledged leadership; the embrace and internalization of the precepts that make an individual stand out in accepted and welcomed positive ways.
Embarking on, and staying on, the leadership course is as important in the mailroom as it is in the C-suite. Perhaps it's even more important there because it is where one learns how to fail and recover, how to be real, and what specific things are honest and consistent with one's mental makeup.
Whether or not one is a leader at work, and irrespective of long-term career aspirations, leadership opportunities surround us. We are short-changing ourselves and leaving those around us poorer if we fail to demonstrate and practice the things that attract followers—and improve results.
Church groups, school and charitable organizations, homeless programs, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts, disaster relief efforts ... the needs are staggering in scope and number. Sure, they all need pairs of hands and warm bodies to get the work done. But none of that comes remotely close to potential without the organization, vision, and direction that leadership brings. And there's no rule that prohibits leaders from pitching in to execute necessary work—in fact, a leader can either gain or lose credibility by his or her willingness to suffer dirty fingernails.HOW TOUGH IS THIS, REALLY?
To be honest, it's not a slam-dunk. But it's not Olympic-level, either. Training and learning—and practice—are the basics. The components, all of which can be taught, learned, and mastered, have been covered as well as anywhere in previous BasicTraining columns. They are numerous and demand rigor and discipline, but they are not complicated. Maybe they boil down to effective communications, accountability for performance, clear visions, valuing diversity (both visible and invisible), and treating people like human beings.
In general, we undertrain and undereducate. And our focus tends to be on new systems and new processes. But every associate deserves—for the organization's benefit—to learn how to lead, both in general and in specific areas. Periodic refreshers are also vital to keep the commitment alive, to recognize cosmic changes, and to bring new people into the leaders' tent. We tend to do either a poor or nonexistent job in this arena.CONSEQUENCES
So what happens when everyday people act like leaders? If you have a custodial role, the best moppers and fixers will clamor to change to your shift. If you have a team, you'll get results, and the best and brightest will politick to get assigned to your team(s), leading to even better results. If you have a department, recruiting and retention will disappear as obstacles to consistent performance. If you head an enterprise, your organization will become a target destination for top performers—and that high performance will continue or even tick up a notch, delighting shareholders, customers, and employees.
Not only is business not a zero sum game, but outcomes can genuinely be win-win-win.