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The Five Foundations of Effective Leadership

To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I’m working on the foundation. ~ Marilyn Monroe Sustainable success in most endeavours requires a strong foundation.

Marilyn Monroe’s tragic ending may have been different with a stronger foundation underneath her great and growing talent. Like a tree that can successfully survive the harshest weather and ravages of time, successful leadership must be based on a solid foundation. The deeper the roots, the taller the tree. The literature on leadership is filled with attributes; some simple, some complex, many colorful and representing the way the leader (or the person describing the leader) sees the world. For example, for a down-home, straight talking, no-BS set of leadership attributes, dip into the book by Gordon Bethune on the turnaround of Continental Airlines: From Worst to First. For a more academic and exhaustive treatise on leadership, read John W. Gardner’s 1993 classic: On Leadership. And it seems that “leadership” is a popular topic these days. A Google search for the word “leadership” turned up 3.4 billion hits. In my previous post I laid out my list of The Five Failures of Leadership. Today, let’s turn the coin over and talk about The Five Foundations of Effective Leadership. 1. A Commitment to “Make a Positive Difference” I want to put a ding in the universe. ~ Steve Jobs Effective leaders seem to have a strong commitment to a goal (dream, vision, objective – whatever you call it) that is much bigger than themselves. They are not content with last year’s results plus 5%. They are determined to make a difference; many are even maniacal about it. Some say obsessed and single-bloody-minded! The job of leader requires strong commitment and focus, because making a positive difference in the world (whether with products, services, innovations, policies) requires going up against a great deal of inertia and reluctance to change. Anybody can wrestle small goals into submission, but big hairy goals require an inordinate amount of focus and commitment. “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” ~ George Bernard Shaw 2. Strong Foundation of Faith and Belief A real leader believes in you more than you believe in them. Real leaders are long on belief. First, they believe in what they are doing, and second, they believe in the people they are doing it with. Without a strong faith and belief in the “goodness” of the goal and the “goodness” of people, most leaders would fade away after one or two setbacks or failures. Adversity is the litmus test for leadership. Anyone can have a leadership title, but few can lead. Faith and belief allow the leader to try again, to think of new solutions, to take further risks, to enroll and mobilize others in the face of certain hardship. Faith and belief come from the inside, not from a large salary or a big office.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. ~ Saint Augustine 3. Build Leaders, Not Followers The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. ~ Ralph Nader The majority of those who have a leadership title or see themselves as leaders, tend to be highly self-centric. They pontificate, they appear on news shows, in front of congress, they have books ghost-written about them, they become personalities. The “cult of leadership” has risen strongly in the past several decades, propelled by the media and those thirsty to find an easy-route to leadership. Effective leaders tend to spend a great deal of their time producing more leaders. They coach, they prod, they test, they support, they teach, they drop hints, they give stretch assignments, they reward, and they redirect. They understand the mantle of leader is not lightly worn and so they constantly work to turn raw talent into leadership. If you want to prosper for a year, grow rice. If you want to prosper for a decade, plant trees. If you want to prosper for a century, grow people. ~ Chinese Proverb 4. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition Effective leaders deliver simple, clear messages, and they repeat them over and over. View any press interview with Alan Mulally when he was CEO of Ford and you will hear the same message over and over; the One Ford mantra. Too often leaders come up with the “flavour of the month” slogan, new idea, or objective. After a while employees at all levels begin to tune out, usually because “the last idea hasn’t even gotten traction yet and here we are on to another direction”. Effective leaders take every opportunity, whether it be in a staff meeting, press interview, or lunchroom chat with employees to repeat the one or two important key messages about the business. And they personalise it by telling personal stories that connect themselves with the message. Repetition of the same thought or physical action develops into a habit which, repeated frequently enough, becomes an automatic reflex. ~Norman Vincent Peale 5. Always Thankful, But Never Satisfied Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. ~ Mark Twain

The mantra of many effective leaders is “continuous improvement from a position of gratitude”. Constantly pushing for more and more can often demoralise employees if they feel that “nothing is ever good enough; all he/she wants is more, more, more!” But without continuous improvement it is easy for a company to fall behind in today’s highly competitive global marketplace. Successful leaders perch their demands for continuous improvement on a foundation of gratitude and appreciation. They are thankful for how far the organization has come, they are thankful and appreciative of the hard work shown every day, they are even thankful for obstacles and challenges! Effective leaders realize that without obstacles, nothing improves or changes. They also know that without a true feeling of gratitude and appreciation, the best does not come forth from employees, or themselves. Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change. On top of these Five Foundations rest a multitude of attributes and characteristics that help build leadership capabilities. But sustainable leadership, especially in the face of overwhelming difficulty, requires a strong foundation. How deep are your roots?

I don’t want to just be a leader, I want to be the leader of a team of leaders! ~ Thomas D. Willhite

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