Much has been said about the nature, characteristics, and styles of leadership and management. Many documents and articles, and books later, I have concluded that it is hard to define the distinctions or the list of critical attributes that make a successful leader or a manager out of you or me.
This is terrible news. Most of us have gone to schools, spent money, and spent countless hours studying and watching videos ranging from inspiring TED Talks to long courses on MOOC platforms trying to master the template of Leadership. And most of us, while we can talk a great deal about what makes a great manager or a leader, we are not good at practicing the nuances of one or the other in day-to-day practice. Most of the time this is not because there is a lack of will. On the contrary, it is the case of working very hard to get somewhere with no knowledge or inkling of where ‘somewhere’ is and what is it that is there.
The other day I had an epiphany when faced with a particularly complicated question from a team member. “I know I am fairly good at managing teams, but how do I become a leader?” It’s not the first time this question has bewildered me, but I think I cracked it this time; not quite to the satisfaction of my colleague but I think I have satisfied myself. My grand epiphany is that leadership of any quality and management success of any scale is purely serendipitous. It’s context and situation and the incidence of success thereafter that make great leaders.
Let me clarify before you discount me. I am not saying all individuals are born equal. It may be incorrect to express, but it is the truth. People are born with genetically determined characteristics and other unique combinations of circumstantial habits that one imbibes growing through life. The reaction to any situation of two different people will always be mutually unique, albeit with overlaps. The problem of how we think about leadership in hindsight when writing essays, books, and course curricula is based on a frequency distribution / statistical analysis of the overlaps.
If, in a universe of 100 people faced with a problem in life or work, 50 people successfully navigate to an outcome, 20 of them are empathetic, 20 of them have excellent communication skills, 15 of them are risk takers, and 2 of them are sociopaths, our natural conclusion is that Empathy, Communication Skills, and Risk Appetite must be essential skills of success and represent dominant attributes of leaders. There are two problems with this approach. One, it is unfair to the sociopaths because their success is equally well deserved; but they probably don’t care much about being who they are. Two, it creates a global template for leadership based on an unexpected situation. We can keep adding more and more data, discount outliers, include more variables, and track companies’ stock performances (the standard business magazine measure of all good things) to establish the intersections of situational reactions. We discount the outliers to suit the statistics. But sociopaths make very successful businessmen too.
Is leadership a matter of chance alone, then? I hypothesize that it is, especially when you link leadership skills to the success of a venture or the outcome of a choice made in reaction to an unknown or unique situation. But that doesn’t mean that there is no hope. I suggest that we approach the discourse of leadership skills differently. We have to move away from the template-based approach to leadership to pursue the recognition of being a good leader.
Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer, once said, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” It matters who holds the helm when the going gets rough and stays calm. We must learn to hold the proverbial helm in a storm and master the art of staying calm when faced with a crisis. That has to be the crux of leadership. Knowledge and experience—based expertise will define leadership qualities because expertise will come in handy when faced with a situation. An individual with zero aptitude for numbers, and a head in the fine arts, will not make a successful leader when faced with the career prospect of leading investment bankers into the modern-day startup ecosystem! No matter how much empathy, communication skills, and risk appetite he or she may master.
An argument will be that not everyone can know everything. Unfortunately, we are in an age of competition and complexity, where that argument makes for a poor excuse. No one needs to be a subject matter expert of all trades, but the one intersection that cannot be ignored about leaders is their knowledge and understanding of the situations they face or choose to tackle at any time. So we need to focus on the ability to absorb, internalise and apply knowledge. That is the difference between a successful reaction and a failed or semi-successful outcome.
Leadership greatness is an outcome and not a journey. The journey is based on knowledge, expertise, ability to sort through information and take a chance on a probable direction and outcome. If you fail, which some of us will, there is always the next time!