The approach of effective leaders

Lessons learned through the years


Over the years, I have often been asked about my thoughts on what effective leadership is or is not. In this column, I will share some “lessons learned” regarding effective leadership, derived from my consulting experiences through the years.

Lesson No. 1: The best “doers” do not necessarily make the best leaders.
The Peter principle is an error that is made when a candidate is selected based on performance in his or her current role, rather than with regard to the qualities necessary for success in the new role. Often, this results in the person’s promotion to his or her level of incompetence. Doing the work well is much different than facilitating the efforts of others so they do their work well. Therefore, when it comes to selecting leaders, choose wisely.

Lesson No. 2: Leaders don’t arrive, they act.
I sometimes have smiled to myself when I have heard a leader, upon being selected for a new role, make a comment along the lines of, “I’ve always wanted this job” or “I’ve been working toward this opportunity for years.” These leaders have missed the point; leadership is not a destination, it is a journey. Leaders do not “arrive” in their roles. Rather, they fulfill their roles with vigorous action. They are going places, not standing still.

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Lesson No. 3: Mastering the art and science of leadership takes practice.
The best leaders with whom I have worked identified themselves as “leaders.” They viewed leadership as a calling, as a craft they did their best to master through disciplined learning, practice and effort. Leadership is an intentional journey.

Lesson No. 4: Leaders eat last.
The best leaders are not self-aggrandizing self-promoters. Rather, they are “employee-centered,” recognizing that the best indicator of how well they are doing is how well their employees are doing. In that sense, they are selfless; they give of themselves on behalf of the people they lead. They operate with humility.

Lesson No. 5: Leaders leave the place in better shape than they found it.
Effective leaders adopt a long-term point of view.  While they recognize that today’s results matter a great deal, they know that for an organization to sustain peak performance over time, the race needs to be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. Leaders focus on perpetuating a firm foundation for sustainability. They are stewards.

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Lesson No. 6: Leaders are credible.
Memorable leaders with whom I have worked have been real people. They have not been braggarts or pompous. They have operated with sincerity and authenticity, along the lines of, “What you see, is what you get.” Leaders are trustworthy.

Lesson No. 7: Leaders can take the heat.
As you move up the organizational hierarchy, the issues become more complex, as do the corresponding choices and solutions. The most effective leaders exhibit calm under fire. Indeed, their ability to persevere in the face of adversity is a defining characteristic.

Lesson No. 8: Leaders challenge the status quo.
The best leaders with whom I have worked are tinkerers. While they focus on perpetuating what their organizations have done well, they do not rest on a record of accomplishment and success, but rather, try to extend it. They are change champions who have encouraged restlessness and ongoing renewal, recognizing that “what got us here won’t get us there.”

Lesson No. 9: It’s what you learn after you know it all that matters the most.
The most effective leaders don’t act like the smartest person in the room, even if that is the case. Rather, they endeavor to use their wisdom and knowledge to benefit the people around them. In that sense, they try to give away all of their ideas, knowing that in doing so, they are helping others to expand their capabilities, resulting in better performance by all. These kinds of leaders have been energetic learners and teachers.

Lesson No. 10: You can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.
Leaders, when the desired results have been achieved, are often lauded and praised. However, the best leaders know that they did not achieve these results by themselves. They celebrate success by shining the light on the people who got the job done.

Ultimately, according to Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

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