What is Excellence in Leadership?

The leadership theme continues — mainly because I attended the 2012 PMI Mile Hi Spring Symposium, whose theme was “Leadership: Winning strategies for achieving project success.” I didn’t yawn once, not even after the great lunch buffet. In fact, I got goose bumps a couple of times.

Pat Williams, Senior VP for the Orlando Magic, gave an inspiring keynote speech about leadership based on his book, Leadership Excellence: The Seven Sides of Leadership in the 21st Century. Although I can take or leave watching professional sports, I admire performers of all ilk — from actors to Cirque du Soleil acrobats to professional athletes. These folks have to perform their best no matter whether they’re injured, didn’t get enough sleep, or face crises in their lives. In team sports as in projects, the team has to perform as a, um, team and that means someone has to lead.

Now, I’m pretty good at getting myself motivated, unstuck, out of ruts, past obstacles. Which is pretty important for someone who’s self-employed. I have had some success motivating teams as I mentioned in an earlier post. However, I am in awe of leaders who can inspire teams to beat overwhelming odds, come back from demoralizing setbacks, and achieve more than they even dreamed possible. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.

So I thought I’d summarize what Mr. Williams says are the seven things that leaders in the 21st century must do to excel.

What are these characteristics of leadership excellence?

1. Vision. No surprise there. What is surprising is how often vision is missing. Vision helps everyone focus. It gives you energy, enthusiasm, and passion for the project at hand. Vision helps you finish, because you know what you’re trying to achieve.

2. Communication. A leader doesn’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell of succeeding if he or she doesn’t communicate well with everyone involved. One of Mr. Williams recommendations is a favorite of mine: Speak to an audience in their language. (If I want my dog Maia to do something, I better be talking duck jerky.) Be clear, concise, and correct. Leaders must be motivational and inspirational. They communicate optimism and hope.

3. People skills. Some people think leaders are in charge. In reality, leaders work for the teams they lead. Leaders must be visible and available. They listen, ask questions, and do what they must to empower people to deliver.

4. Character. Integrity and honesty are crucial. Leaders with character build up their emotional bank accounts (a Stephen Covey concept) with their people. When the going gets tough, teams are willing to work through the issues. Another aspect of character is humility. To me, this links to the idea that leaders work for their teams. Excellent leaders make sure their teams shine.

5. Competence. Although leaders are humble, they must be good at what they do. They build teams, solve problems, sell themselves, and sell their ideas. They are life-long teachers and– so they don’t run out of material– are also life-long learners. Mr. Williams talked about being a life-long reader. He talked about how much reading you can do simply by reading an hour a day.

6. Boldness. Lots of people make decisions. Leaders make the best decisions they can and don’t look back.

7. A serving heart. Leaders gave authority in order to serve. You’ve heard the saying “Power corrupts.” Excellent leaders have power, but don’t fall into using if for their personal gain. They use it to achieve others’ goals, to better the world around them.

Learning Lessons on Leadership

The first thing I think of when I think about leadership: I was a bad employee. I wasn’t a bad employee because I did bad work. On the contrary, I did great work and customers loved me. But I always had problems with the management in the companies I worked for. I was told I had a bad attitude — and I did. (Since I’m a terrible follower, I had better learn to be a good leader.) Then, I read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and realized the source of my “problems.” Many (not all) of the managers and executives I knew didn’t think win-win. They focused on making sales and making money, not on making sure customers got what they needed. Covey talked about treating employees the way you want them to treat customers and I typically don’t see that happening in companies either.

A long story shortened, I have had my own business since 1997. When I quit, a good friend said “Well, now, your boss is an *$$hole, but at least you know what to do about it.” He was right. But I digress.

I used a quote on leadership from Dwight Eisenhower in my book, Successful Project Management:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

How do you get people to do something you want because they want to? My two cents, give them something to believe in: a mission, if you will.

Not long before I quit to start my company, I was promoted to manage a customer support group. Making the company a success wasn’t exactly something I could believe in. But making our customers successful so they would remain our customers was. So, without really thinking about it, I worked on a win-win with customers and my team to deliver a win for the company.

I fought for training and raises for my people. My previously demoralized team became re-energized and customer support improved. As it turns out, the training also helped the members of my team keep their jobs or find new ones. And the raises set them up to obtain higher salaries at their new jobs. The company didn’t survive, but I couldn’t do anything to turn that around. Having something to believe in seems to work.

Jumping ahead to my writing career: It is a success, but my leadership style hasn’t been. My standards are very high. My clients love my work. But I have taken to warning potential co-workers about my great expectations. Pushing too hard reminds me of another great Eisenhower quote:

Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

I still have something to believe in: providing engaging, clear guidance and instruction to my readers. So why have I failed to lead people who work with me on writing projects? My first thought is deadlines. Books, articles, and other writing projects are rife with tough deadlines. But all projects have deadlines. With my writing, I willingly flog myself to meet deadlines because I’m the one who accepts them. (See what my friend meant about my boss being an *$$hole?) I turn to other people for help only when I have deadlines I can’t possibly achieve by myself — when I’m stressed, when I’m at my least nurturing. It isn’t pretty.

I won’t change my high expectations. But instead of beating people over the head with them, I’ll set those expectations as a goal. I’ll use projects with less challenging deadlines as a training ground. That way, I have the time to train, guide, coach, and support to my teammates, just as the end result is a book or course that provides training, guidance, coaching, and support to my readers.