Are You Ready To Lead?

May 3, 2012

An interesting and unexpected assignment came my way. I was invited to deliver this year’s commencement address at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Needless to say, I was surprised and honored to be asked. It has now led me to think about what it takes to be a leader today, and more importantly, tomorrow.

It used to be sufficient to have a vision for your company, set some concrete goals, put your head down, build a staff and attain your goals. You prepared for leadership by starting at the middle or bottom of a company, getting to know the ropes, and working your way up the food chain. If you worked for a good company, others took an interest in your career and mentored you to build on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

Not these days.

The speed and complexity of the business environment have increased exponentially. The demands are greater, the decisions are made more quickly, and the consequences seem more significant.

Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need much more than a vision; they need a whole array of skills, both analytical and technical, that allow them to steer their companies through uncharted and rough waters. Leaders need a combination of vision, wisdom, courage, compassion and humility.

Vision is the most traditional of the leadership skills. It includes looking at business today and imagining where it will be in the future. Vision is neither positive nor negative; it’s practical. It’s the sense that allows a leader to move their company in the face of a threat, or to change focus to take advantage of an emerging opportunity. For young leaders, vision and passion most times go together. Not all passions, however, translate into visions. That leads to the inevitable mistakes that we all make. But natural leaders know how to pick themselves up, learn from the error and continue forward.

Wisdom is the total of accumulated experience. In my younger years, I found it essential to create my own personal board of directors. These were leaders and mentors I looked up to, and they were gracious and giving enough to share their wisdom with me. Advice is an easy thing to ask for, but difficult to accept. Leaders get their egos out of the way and accept the wisdom of good advice.

Courage is a characteristic that is many times lacking in managers. It’s what distinguishes a manager from a leader. Risk-taking is a necessary quality for a leader; the determination to see a vision through to reality is the hallmark of a leader. There are those who hesitate when the game is on the line. It’s the leaders who play through their own anxiety and display courage.

Compassion is often in short supply in business. With the environment so pressurized, a leader’s compassion can easily get mistaken for weakness. The stereotypical leader is assumed to be George Patton in pinstripes, but real leaders find ways of accommodating the humanity of their team members as well as their own. They recognize that at its core, business is about and for people, who are emotional as well as rational actors, especially during frustrating or hard times. A good leader provides emotional support and sees his or her team as individual human beings, not just boxes in the organization chart.

Humility is more often feigned than real, but most employees can tell when the boss is faking it. If a leader has a clear sense of self, he or she knows that business is a team endeavor and the credit, not just the blame, needs to be shared all around. True leaders are humble enough to recognize that visions do not become realities without a lot of shared understanding and hard work.

For tomorrow’s leadership, all of these traditional characteristics will be needed, but there are new demands emerging as our business changes.

Curiosity and imagination are becoming leadership qualities that have proven to be significant contributors to success. If a leader is constantly looking outside their immediate industry or peer group to identify parallel trends, they can bring insights into the organization that may not otherwise get noticed. Too many businesses have a strategy of imitation, not innovation. Curious leaders ask endless questions and want to know why. Imaginative leaders find ways to translate the answers into new opportunities.

Technological understanding and its application to our business is becoming a significant demand of leaders. While it isn’t necessary to understand how the technology was developed, or even how it works, the most important insight is how to apply it to move the business forward or in a new direction. Leaders like the late Steve Jobs have this gift; he used it not only to create the most successful company in modern history, but to change the way the world interacts.

Balance will become a more significant characteristic of leaders as the world becomes faster and more complicated. Face it, none of us can continuously go flat out at the speed of business and not risk our health, family and future. In fact, most successful leaders I’ve met have the ability to withdraw from the battle and see the larger picture. They can then return with a clearer and many times better plan for the future. The nature of each of our jobs has changed; we are always connected, hard-wired into our radio stations and on call. It requires discipline and focus to work and live in balance, but the rewards are many. Real leaders also find time to give back to their community in ways as varied as they are as people. Not only is their city or town a better place because of their efforts, they return to their jobs with a better and broader perspective.

All in all, a challenging list of characteristics and ideals to aspire to. Every single one of us charged with leading companies knows that we are not saints, nor are we perfect. But we aspire to these ideals because the real power of leadership is not simply to attain it, but rather to use it to make a lasting impact and create a more meaningful life for those around us.