It’s funny how a single word can be interpreted in so many different ways. If someone is talking about “fast dogs,” for example, you might immediately picture your own pooch. If your dog happens to be a Greyhound, and another person’s dog is a Yorkshire Terrier, there might be all kinds of opportunity for miscommunication.
The same goes for the word “leadership.” For some people, it simply means “being the boss” and taking charge. Others think of leadership as directing people to accomplish an outcome. For a small business owner, leadership might mean actually taking the lead in doing the work, rather than simply directing it. As noted in previous columns, the ability to lead one’s self is key to growing a healthy organization.
When we discuss leadership with our clients, we are most often talking about leading the enterprise — deliberately taking your company toward a preferable future. One reason we beat that drum is because it is so incredibly difficult to maintain a focus on the future while scrambling to survive in the present. This rings especially true amid this time of pandemic and social and political upheaval.
While I am not insensitive to the severity of our current situation, here’s the reality: there will always be enough drama, urgency, and crisis to distract us from the strategic and important. Always. So as you prioritize how you will invest your time and energy in the days ahead, give focus and energy to each of the following cornerstones of enterprise leadership:
Culture. This can feel vague. We think of culture as “the way we do things around here.” Paying attention to culture is about examining the way we do things and asking, “Is it helping us or hurting us?” It’s about the rules — both formal and informal — of working at your company. The problem here is that, as a senior leader, getting a clear picture of your company’s culture is virtually impossible to do on your own. You’ll need other eyes and ears to figure it out.
Talent. Finding, keeping, and developing great people are among the most substantial decisions any leader will ever make. But too often we let the urgency of our need lower our standard. Doing the hard work of understanding why certain types of people thrive in our organizations while discovering why others fail is an uncomfortable endeavor, so it’s easy to put those questions off for another day. Take time to evaluate your organization and your talent pipeline. (Hint: It’s closely tied to culture.)
Vision. In good times, a lot of companies can experience success with an opportunistic approach to finding and executing work. But over the long-haul, those companies that identify a preferable future and work toward it with relentless focus, taking detours when necessary, will usually outperform their rivals.
Reputation. In the founding generation, a company’s reputation is usually closely tied to the integrity of the owner and senior leaders. Every decision they make enhances or hinders that reputation. When a company grows beyond the capacity for one person to make all the decisions, organizations must then create a model for decision-making through alignment with a set of core values. Then the reputation is enhanced no matter who makes the decision.
None of these leadership cornerstones are easy to nurture, which is why most of us put these tough evaluations off until another day. Together, we will unpack each one in the months ahead. But for now, I leave you with two questions:
• If not now, then when?
• If not me, then who?
Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership, with Ed Rowell, CSL consultant.