What makes a good leader? Kath Walters considers the changing shape of the business world and the qualities imperative to leading the charge.
Lead the future
I stumbled upon a marvellous metaphor for leadership recently, one that epitomises the kind of leadership which, in my experience, sets the best companies apart from the rest. It offers us a way to reframe leadership and governance in the year ahead.
Let me explain. While driving with my sister down the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, we rounded a corner and noticed a bunch of parked cars. On our left, completely covering a small sandy bay, stood thousands of hand-built stone towers. Like many others, we slowed, and couldn’t resist getting out to explore.
It is not too much to say that the mood was festive. The beach seemed like a fantasy city, a playground and a mystery rolled into one. Most people added a tower of their own, and photographed it. Others wandered about, marvelling at the individuality of each creation. The formula was strict: large stones on the bottom with increasingly small stones creating the tower. The materials were restricted: the available stones. Yet the towers expressed their builders. Some were modest, others grand, some formed bridges – you get the idea.
As I clicked with my mobile, the leadership metaphor struck me forcefully. Someone – I do not know who – had created the first tower, or perhaps more. They had created enough towers for the rest of us to feel inspired to make a contribution.
Too often, leadership and governance becomes intolerably complex.
Without instructions, we all knew what do to. We enjoyed each other’s work. We felt exhilarated by the collective effort, and by the sheer scale of the impact it created.
There are a group of company leaders that have the same impact on their companies and the world that the stone tower city had on us. I’ve had the great good fortune to speak to hundreds of such leaders – usually their companies are growing fast – over my career in business journalism.
They are the leaders who look at a bunch of stones and do not see rubble – they see potential. Long before we twig to their vision, they are building foundations.
Here are the three essential qualities I have seen so often in this kind of leader:
- Service – Their driving motivation is to be of service to their “tribe” – customers, staff, other leaders, and their own family and friends. Their ambition is to see those they serve succeed, and their own success is a by-product. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, divides the world into three types: givers, takers and matchers. The leaders of the future are givers, but they give with wisdom. As Grant says, they know “how to be modest and influence people.”
- Sense-making – The special skill of these leaders is to look ahead and see a pattern before the rest of us do. They are able to imagine our collective future, and want to guide us (but not force us) to this destination. The University of Michigan’s Karl Weick, who coined the term sense-making, describes this as an ability to structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it.
- Scope – These leaders want to stretch themselves. They don’t shrink from their vision. They are willing to grow. Criticism is feedback. Barriers are curiosities. They embody a combination of single-mindedness and openness. They are single-minded about their vision of a possible future; they are open to anything that furthers their path towards that future. They are open to anything that furthers the future as they see it.
These three qualities together create the leaders who are making our future. Too often, leadership and governance becomes intolerably complex. The volatility and uncertainty of our future makes leadership an uncomfortable place.
That is why these three qualities matter today. These future-makers turn leadership into an exchange (not a command). They see creative and commercial value in being accountable to their tribe and to the world. They are comfortable with never arriving at a destination, but constantly evolving in response to our volatile world.
By developing these qualities, those who lead the future empower others to deliver it. Their job is to imagine what is possible and put the first stones in place. They inspire us to contribute our part.
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