Being a Great Leader Means You Go First
Originally published on Forbes
A leader will help your organization steer through tough times; a good leader will have a plan in place already to react quickly to change; a great leader will have course corrected long ago so that you will never know what dangers were in your path.
Part of being a great leader is setting your organization on a new course well before anyone else can see it. For this reason, great leaders are often denounced and attacked for taking that first step. Many aspire to be great leaders as we see the spoils after the fact - the corner office, a book deal, corporate perks, power, money, etc. What few understand is that being a great leader means having to stand completely alone with your beliefs.
Off all leaders, there are few great leaders. Some examples are: Corporate names like Gates, Jobs, Buffett, or Welch; Political names like Kennedy, Reagan, or Roosevelt; Militaristic names like Patton, Churchill, or Eisenhower. You may add some “good leaders” to this list of people you have worked for directly and may admire. But, how many of the Fortune 100 CEOs could you list off? How many Presidents has the U.S. had and how many can you name? Top CEOs and former U.S. Presidents comprise a very powerful list - wielding enormous power. They are mostly unknown, unacknowledged, or relics of history because they failed the test from "good" to "great." Greatness comes from seeing around corners, doing the right thing, and being unwavering in your beliefs.
See Around Corners
Great leaders see the path before anyone else. They don’t have to see it alone - they can have advisors and confidants helping them, but they do connect the dots and see where both problems and success lay in front of them. Jobs and Gates are two notable leaders who saw where media consumption and software licensing were heading, and took bold moves to steer their energies and companies in those directions. They rebuked conventional wisdom - not just because of their smarts - but because they "saw it" before it happened.
How do you replicate that? What if you don't have some innate "leadership psychic ability?" Most of this comes from understanding your space better than anyone else.
- Know your history. Odds are the issue you are facing is deeply rooted in some prior dilemma. Even if what you are doing is brand new, it has its roots from your past. Find them and see what worked, what did not. Do the first, avoid the second.
- Don't always be the smartest person in the room. Smart leaders know how to surround themselves with smarter people. If you look around and you are always the smartest person, you are not getting the full benefit of counsel. Go find the smartest people in their disciplines.
- Listen to everyone. Great ideas can come from anyone. Always be listening. Even a patent clerk can come up with a good idea.
Do the Right Thing
Great leaders make the right choice, even when it is not the popular choice. The popular choice is what the crowd wants, what they understand. However, you have learned from everyone what the right thing to do is. You have insight and information that the crowd does not. It is your job to make them - not "help" them- "make them" understand. We often think of leaders in terms of charisma or their ability to win us over. Here is where those skills come into play. You have to get people on board or you will fail. Everyone needs somebody to help. You may well be able to order or force your idea upon folks, but that will not give you results you need to make the change you need. Great leadership means that these ideas empower your people to wantto make the change.
Imagine you are James Burke, CEO of Johnson and Johnson in 1982. You are standing in front of your board informing them that your #1 brand product, Tylenol, has been laced with cyanide and caused several deaths in the Chicago area. After thoughtful consideration, you are recommending the recall of over $100M in product and a massive communications campaign to rectify the situation. Think that was a popular decision? Want to stand in those shoes? Yet, 30 years later, we remember the decision as one which transformed crisis communications and ultimately lead Johnson and Johnson to "trusted status" as a brand for their decisions and reactions.
You are the first to the decision, and it is the right thing to do. Here is where you will get beaten down by "the spirit of collaboration." Most will want to put their thumbprint on this new idea, but it is your job to not let them. This is not about listening to dissent or new ideas, and this is not about being smart and learning how to evolve your idea. This is wavering in your beliefs for the sake of the masses. Being a great leader means being unwavering in your decision and letting you and your ideas be subject to a wealth of opinions. Listen, learn, evaluate. What works - keep. Jettison the rest. The "rule of committee" seldom works, and not for something this big, something this important. Stand your ground.
Leaders are a dime a dozen; good leaders are rare. If you want great leadership, it comes with a price. Can you spend the time to be "expert?" Can you "do the right thing?" Can you be "unwavering" in your decisions? Then we just may write a book about you.