Follow the Leader 3

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Follow the Leader, Leadership

When I was a child we used to play a game whereby someone was picked to be the leader and they had to run around and the others had to mimic their actions, movements and follow their path, the more complex, the better. Those that didn’t follow, deviated from the ‘route’ or made a mistake were removed from the team. Does have some certain similarities to corporate life doesn’t it?

In this post I’d like to outline the kind of leader that I would be proud to follow and that are the kinds of people who will drive their organisations forward in the 21st century.

Great leaders in the 21st Century are a CLASS APART


C – Communicate clearly, with vision, belief and passion

I’ve been privileged to have worked with some of the best public speakers out there. I’ve also worked with introverts that struggle to deliver the ‘perfect’ pitch. I’ve personally been told by some that they don’t ‘get’ my message, and by others that my words have been an ‘inspiration’ to them. Who is right? They all are. Everyone receives information differently and are certainly motivated differently.

Communicating to your whole organisation, customer base, shareholders or prospects requires significant thought, preparation and insight. The best leaders understand that and tailor their message for their audiences.

L – Listen to ALL their people, not just their direct reports

The 21st century leader is a great listener and able to interpret what they are hearing.

Senior managers often wall themselves off, sometimes literally, in their own world. They are so busy that they don’t stray off the path from the door to their offices.

A great question for all senior managers is, “When was the last time you walked around the office? Who did you meet and what did you learn?” The best times to do this are at the beginning and end of the day. These are times to walk the floors if you want to know who is getting things done.

Many leaders got where they are because they “got things done.” They were problem-solvers. However, good leaders resist the urge to immediately solve every problem and instead simply listen to what they are hearing.

If someone is relating an issue and the leader cuts off that person to give an answer, the facts can be lost. The leader may not get to the heart of the matter and will miss further information the employee was going to contribute.

Leaders have to be particularly alert to hearing things from multiple sources. If a comment is made about a person’s poor performance, it could be just an opinion, a poor relationship or even office politics. However, if that same comment is heard from three or four different sources, the hard-listening leader is able to corroborate these multiple data points. It is probably a sign of a bigger issue that needs to be addressed.

Leaders often go with their gut feeling. However, assuming they have the right answer when talking to someone in their team is short-sighted. The team member who is actually doing the job probably has more insight than the executive. When the finance analyst who actually processes the reports is telling you about an issue, it’s time to listen.

A – Are authentic

[No-one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else – Bill George, Harvard Business School professor]

In my experience, you can separate many leaders into two categories: those for whom leadership is about their success and those who are leading to serve others.  The latter group finds inspiration in the trials and tribulations of their own lives to make the transformation from “I” to “We.”  The former group never makes that transition.  Although many of them disguise their intentions with “we” language, their actions under pressure often reveal they are out for themselves.

I have come to the conclusion that we need a new kind of leader to lead our companies in the 21st century – a leader who can empower and inspire others to lead.  The 20th century vision of a leader who commands the troops to follow them over the hill to build his or her glory is dead – or it should be!

GE’s Jeff Immelt said, “Leadership is one of those great journeys into your soul.  It’s not like anyone can tell you how to do it.”

S – Spend time talking to / listening to / working with customers

I’ve written before that I learnt quite late in my career the importance of spending quality time, face to face with customers and prospective customers. Don’t get me wrong, customer research and listening to customer service and support calls are invaluable in gaining insight, but actually taking the time to get to know, build rapport with and understand your customers, will bring you ten times the value.

Don’t just do the corporate hospitality bit at the football match or the golf course, really invest time inside people’s businesses, meeting their people and getting to know what makes them tick. This insight is a game changer. Not only will it impress your customer and improve your relationship with them, but will also give you a truly competitive edge in the market place.

S – Seek knowledge

It takes a real sense of personal commitment, especially after you’ve arrived in a position of power and responsibility, to push yourself to grow and challenge conventional thinking. Which is why it’s important for leaders to ask themselves the following question:

Are you learning, as an organisation and as an individual, as fast as the world is changing?

To be honest I’d challenge anyone to truthfully answer yes to that question!

I follow the LEARN model

Listen – Audiobooks, Podcasts,

Engage – Networking – on and offline, Masterminds Groups, Mentoring and Coaching

Act – Use what you’ve learnt in practice

Read – Business books, biographies, trade press, blogs and self-development material

Nurture – Develop your skills over time, through practice and more practice

A – Ask questions

While good leaders may voice a solution when a problem rears its ugly head, great leaders ask their teams how to solve it. By framing a problem around appropriate questions, your team will discover the right answers on its own terms, rather than simply being told. This fosters ownership, autonomy, and feelings of success – all crucial ingredients toward a healthy and productive group.

Here are some of the questions great leaders ask so that they can develop great companies.


We’ve all joked about children asking “why?” over and over again. But the repeated asking of that simple question gets to the root of so many business challenges. You might have to ask it a few times before you reach the response that truly solves a problem.

What can we do better?

Successful leaders never stop seeking improvement. Nothing is perfect. Everything can be tweaked and fine-tuned. Whether it’s a cost savings or quality of customer service; answering the phone faster or writing more streamlined code; finding a better supplier or coming up with a new employee training initiative—at every level of an organisation something can be done better. So ask, and find out what it is. Leadership means pushing your team to attain a higher standard than they otherwise might establish for themselves.

What is everyone thinking, but reluctant to say?

This is a question that has to be asked, but in a progressive company shouldn’t need to be asked. Ideally, if you’re the leader of a team you’ve already fostered an atmosphere in which your people speak freely. They’re not intimidated. They’ll tell you the way things are even if it means breaking news they know you won’t want to hear. But there’s no harm in asking the question, just in case someone’s holding something back. You always want the plain, unvarnished truth.

P – Passionately care about results AND their peoples’ success

I’ve worked with many leaders who have been passionate about one or the other, but very few who have been truly passionate about both. In my view having the passion for both, builds long-term organisational success.

It appears that I’m not alone. In 2009, James Zenger published a survey of 60,000 employees to identify how different characteristics of a leader combine to affect employee perceptions of whether their CEO is a “great” leader or not. Two of the characteristics that Zenger examined were results focus and social skills. But if a leader was seen as being very strong on results focus, the chance of that leader being seen as a great leader was only 14%. If a leader was strong on social skills, he or she was seen as a great leader even less of the time — a paltry 12%. However, for leaders who were strong in both results focus and in social skills, the likelihood of being seen as a great leader skyrocketed to 72%.

So how many ‘Leaders’ have both a results and a people focus. David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, and Management Research Group recently conducted a survey to find out the answer.  They asked thousands of employees to rate their bosses on goal focus (similar to results focus) and social skills to examine how often a leader scored high on both.  The results are astonishing.  Less than 1% of leaders were rated high on both goal focus and social skills.

How can we do better?  We should give greater weight to social skills in the hiring and promotion process.  We also need to create a culture that rewards using both sides – results and social skills.

A – Anticipate the markets and change

Many organisations and leaders are poor at detecting ambiguous threats and opportunities on the periphery of their business. The business press is full of stories every week with examples. Strategic leaders, in contrast, are constantly vigilant, honing their ability to anticipate by scanning the environment for signals of change.

To improve your ability to anticipate:

  • Talk to your customers, suppliers, and other partners to understand their challenges.
  • Conduct market research and business simulations to understand competitors’ perspectives, gauge their likely reactions to new initiatives or products, and predict potential disruptive offerings.
  • Use scenario planning to imagine various futures and prepare for the unexpected.
  • Look at a fast-growing rival and examine actions it has taken that puzzle you.
  • List customers you have lost recently and try to figure out why.
  • Keep up-to-date on your industry and your key clients, especially those on the way up AND down.

R – Respond to feedback

Many managers find that as they become more senior, they receive less feedback and become more confused about their performance and development needs. They may also become increasingly isolated from constructive criticism—people do not want to offend their boss and may believe that constructive suggestions are unwelcome and unwise. Many senior managers whilst they claim to encourage constructive criticism, they really don’t want to hear it.

Too frequently, when these managers ultimately do receive feedback in their year-end reviews, they are surprised to be confronted with specific criticisms of their leadership style, communication approach, and interpersonal skills. Worse, they may also hear broad concerns raised about their strategy, key tactical decisions, and operating priorities for the business. These leaders may even learn, often too late, that the various criticisms and concerns have been widely discussed among their subordinates for an extended period of time without them being aware.

Receiving feedback is a gift, albeit sometimes a badly wrapped one! As a leader it’s important to ask for feedback, not just from your direct reports and the wider team, but also from your peers and even customers.

T – Teach and Nurture

I’ve long believed that the best leaders are teachers. Not lecturers, but teachers.  As teachers, they challenge us to think, to explore, to experiment, to learn and to keep trying.

Great leaders encourage us to find joy and energy in the journey of discovery and they remind us that the satisfaction from finding the answer is momentary and should quickly be replaced with more searching and more learning.

The best leaders…like teachers let us fail in order to learn.  They offer encouragement when needed and tough-love when it the situation demands it.  They teach us to be accountable to ourselves…and to set exceedingly high standards for our own performance.

Great teachers and great leaders challenge us to reach and strive.  They might step in if we’re about to fall off a cliff or to cross the street without looking, but they’ll wince and stand by as we fall and skin our knees or as we settle out our playground disputes.

Leaders teach and someday in the future, the student becomes the teacher and the cycle starts anew.

Hope you enjoyed ‘Follow the Leader’ – Who do you see as a 21st Century Leader and why?