Early in my career I worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper that covered a small city and surrounding suburbs. The guy who ran the company was a lawyer who worked about five or six hours a day. He was absent from our everyday world, though his stern bearing pervaded the atmosphere. Our staff cartoonist dubbed him The Shadow, and often sketched him in secret illustrations as a vague form in the distance. One day The Shadow entered the newsroom, to the wonderment of all, and stuck a piece of paper to the bulletin board. As soon as we were able to move again, we crept over to learn the nature of the apocalypse. It was a contest: Predict the date and time that the Dow Jones industrial average would reach 1,000.
I was stunned. I covered politics and government for the newspaper, and the Dow wasn’t part of any conversation in my life. I’d say that two or three of the older folks in the newsroom might have owned some stocks, but the rest of us, the young men and women earning modest salaries? Highly doubtful. The Dow, I decided, is what CEOs are interested in. (Would that it were the Tao.)
A dozen years later, at another publishing empire: Everyone worked together in a 7,000 square foot room, except for the president and the vice presidents, of which I was one (though my office had no windows). One day the president, an affable and visible guy, walked into the middle of the place and announced the winners of the ad sales incentive competition. Norman won the trip to the Caribbean, and Shelley got the handsome gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue.
Within minutes there was a crowd at my office door. Editors and reporters were unhappy, some suffering. Why were those nine-to-fivers with no brains getting free trips to the Virgin Islands when they work their buns off day and night? I encouraged them to ask the boss. Another leadership lesson. You can bet that that event didn’t occur again, at least not within earshot.
At both of those companies, the rank and file employees complained all the time about low pay and lousy working conditions, about deaf managers and hopelessness. As I matured I learned, by observation, hundreds of ways to manage poorly. I must add that I have worked under supervisors whom I admired, and discovered the positives of leadership from them. Yet it still amazes me that the most basic elements of business leadership appear to have escaped many an executive. Don’t they listen? Don’t they care? Why not? I have sat at conferences next to my boss and listened to speakers hand the keys to effective leadership to us on a silver platter. Great stuff, I thought. The boss didn’t hear a word. Another time, at a TLMI meeting, a speaker delivered a wealth of ideas about improving the team spirit inside a company. On the way out of the session, a label company owner looked at me and said, “What a load of horsefeathers!” He used a different word, but horsefeathers will do.
Great leadership is innate. That’s a truth that I’ve come to after a lifetime of working for other people. Good leadership can be bred into a receptive, perceptive and intelligent person with the right personality, but it is not something that you can just learn. Years ago I knew two good guitar players. Tom had been playing for just three years, but he possessed a talent that turned heads everywhere he showed up. Andy had been studying intensely for 11 years. His skill was impeccable, but he played with the inspiration of a clock.
A great leader knows how to use her skills and talents, her qualities and character attributes, in ways that others cannot. She can figure out what the numbers mean and be honest to herself and her colleagues about the future, long term and short. She seeks counsel on investments and takes the occasional calculated risk. She stays calm in a typhoon. She knows her strengths and weaknesses. She likes people, respects customers and vendors alike, and enjoys competition for what it is. She keeps up on technology, ecology, economy, psychology, and appropriate laws. She is known in her community, in her industry, and among the charities that she supports.
Most important, she has the trust and the respect of the employees who work at her company. She has earned that trust and that respect because she knows that inside her company is the only thing that matters in the business world: the people.
Fewer than half of all CEOs whom I know, have met or have interviewed will make a declarative statement about the importance of their associates. Most will say, “Oh, we have a great team here,” and they mean it, but they leave it at that. The shrewd minority will say right up front that there wouldn’t be a company without the people, or success without the right people.
Business leadership is a lot like parenting. After creating the baby, the mom and dad build the environment in which the child will grow. The ideal environment is at once safe, fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, educational, and promising. The parents set the tone, the rules and the pace. The business leader does the same thing. Companies grow, and employees have to grow with them. Follow the leader.
If your parents were too busy to spend time with you as a kid, chances are you have some issues to deal with today. Same goes for the workplace. The boss must be engaged, fully and continuously, with associates at all levels, or else the employees will be leaderless, and that leads to weakness. At large companies such total engagement might not be practical or feasible, but the smart leader will figure something out.
The internet is awash with advice on everything, including leadership. I found a list of leadership characteristics at Mind Tools (mindtools.com) that are explored in depth in the company’s course of study, and which form the basic palette of concepts that every leader should embrace:
Create a reliable, robust and attractive vision of the future that people will respect and believe in (meaning that they’ll enthusiastically follow your lead);
Communicate your vision, and see the benefits as people work to the best of their abilities to complete the projects you initiate successfully;
Grow your self-confidence, becoming a calm and self-confident leader, and one who inspires confidence in others;
Build a reputation for expertise and a track record of achievement that team members and your peers will come to respect, value and trust;
Make good decisions under pressure, with the confidence that you’ve done the homework needed for these decisions to be right;
Enjoy mutually rewarding, cooperative working relationships with team members and peers. And enjoy the happy, energizing atmosphere that comes with this;
Keep people on target and performing well together in a “firm but fair way” that gets the job done while respecting the rights of team members;
Learn to inspire and motivate team members so that they’ll “go to the ends of the Earth” to give their very best.
None of these is easy, and some might be impossible. But if you try, the smart people on your team will know. And yes, these are ideals. But it might be worthwhile to consider the value of ideals as expressed by Victor Hugo: “The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.”
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.