Why is it that everything Richard Branson touches seems to change into gold? Why did Barack Obama win the U.S. presidential election in 2009 and 2013? Why is Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo) one of the world's most powerful women? Leaders enough, but what makes someone an excellent leader? What can we learn from that?
Knowledge, strategic thinking and highly developed analytical skills: these are all qualifications of a successful leader. Important characteristics, but they are more basic features rather than unique qualities. The secret is not rationality, but emotion: top leaders know how to touch their people emotionally.
An excellent leader is able to empathize with the needs of stakeholders, anticipating accordingly, and challenges people to give their best. At the same time a strong leader is not afraid to be vulnerable and to admit where things can be improved. Integrity, honesty and empathy: an excellent leader cannot do without human qualities. Even in times of crises. Let's be honest: a politician who has lied or has been unfaithful, loses his credibility forever. That is no different in business, as Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once observed: ‘I forgot to shake hands and be friendly. It was an important lesson about leadership.’
Being human is crucial, but there's more: a true leader is eager to learn, thinks out-of-the-box and never stops looking for ways to do things differently, smarter, more efficient, more convenient, and therefore better. Technology is developing rapidly and the market is always in motion: only the ones who are able to anticipate in time stay on top. Steve Jobs (Apple) once said: ‘You cannot just ask your customers what they want and then try to give it to them. By the time you've built it, they want something else.’
But being inquisitive and human alone is not enough to become a excellent leader. Leadership is not about leadership itself, but to inspire and encourage action in others. In the EFQM Model 2013, it reads as follows: ‘Leaders in excellent organisations inspire people and create a culture of involvement, ownership, empowerment, improvement and accountability through their actions, behaviours and experience.’
Ultimately leadership is about letting go. Not just saying it, but also doing it. The internet clothing store Zappos understands how. This company is transforming itself into a holacratic organisation. That means: no hierarchy, no managers and not even job titles. Wondering how that works in practice? More next week.
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