Having a leadership strategy is finding the passion and serenity needed to be adaptive in the face of challenges, not reactive to information or perceived threats to the business.
We love to believe that genius is a gift. We read stories about great leaders and their accomplishments. We talk about the characteristics that leaders have as if they can be dissected, taught and learned. There certainly are benefits to start developing more leadership qualities, like presence. But do you have to fit a mould to be a leader? Or can you prepare for it differently?
When I mentor at a large services companies I participated in a training program for career transitions based on “The First 90 Days,” a book by Michael Watkins, who facilitated part of the program. His book walks you through 10 things to do to ramp up in your new role more quickly. These types of pieces of training are helpful.
They are tactical – here’s what to do to be successful. They work because they provide a framework that you can use across a variety of scenarios to think about how to respond. But tactical pieces of training are generally managerial in nature – focusing on tasks and relationships.
So why isn’t there a playbook like this for leaders? There are at least a dozen different leadership theories and strategies – from autocratic leadership to servant leadership. Each of them provides different guidance on what a leader should be and do.
Collectively, they may cover the gamut of “leadership” skills, but no leader possesses all of those. Moreover, by telling people how to be a leader, you make them less authentic – unless of course, they are the ones looking to improve their leadership capabilities.
Two Essential Characteristics of Leaders: Passion and Serenity
What I’ve learned is that, no matter how many characteristics, styles or actions we prescribe to leadership, there really are only two characteristics that great leaders have: passion and serenity.
Leaders need to have passion. I don’t think there is a leadership theory out there that suggests otherwise. If we don’t believe what we say and bring all of our energy to our work, we can’t inspire and connect with others. We lose credibility. We don’t engage our followers in ways that elevate or excite them.
The point is everyone matters. Leaders who listen more broadly are better able to meet a wider variety of needs.
Our leadership style differs, there is another dynam one leans back in one's chair, relaxed and focused with a very open posture. In contrast, is tense, leaning in, much more closed-shouldered. Perhaps is the one whose team is struggling. Our shoulders relax, our guard is let down. We lean in because we want to hear. We want guidance. We are looking for a rock.
That scene is often cited as one of the best examples of leadership around, and you can see why. Leadership isn’t an Approach, it’s an opportunity and responsibility. It’s giving the led what they need, not requiring them to give you what you need. Leadership Strategy is Adaptation
To do that, leaders do need two essential skills. First, communication is key. Communication is about more than making clear basic information. It’s about making sure you are aware of your audience, your message, your timing, along with the reason for the communication and the delivery. It’s all critical to ensuring your message is understood and acted on. Slipups can end careers. In the best case, the soil reputations, even if just briefly.
Second, leaders need to be critical, creative, fast thinkers. People don’t want to wait for answers. Being able to listen, process and respond in real-time may seem natural; doing it well takes a lot of effort and practice.
Taken together, communication and critical thinking are the foundation for adaptation. It’s all about seeing the challenge or opportunity, deciding quickly how to respond or pursue it, and communicating to engage the right audience. It also may be the single thread running through all of those leadership theories.