How Leaders are Different from Other People

I have been giving the idea of leadership a great deal of thought lately. With so many questionable acts of leadership in today’s news, and a seemingly silent majority on the issue of leadership, I want to share some of my thoughts on this topic. Much of what I have to say is drawn from a presentation I will be giving at the annual New York Cash Exchange conference this June. These are mostly corporate treasury professionals so I figure there are sure to be some emerging leaders among them.

My thoughts on what makes for a good leader is largely focused on understanding the “people” side of being a leader as opposed to the technical side. Many leaders scale the corporate ladder by demonstrating outstanding technical knowledge, but do a poor job when it comes to leading people particularly in times of change. And to make a business grow leading during a time of change is inevitable.

In putting together this presentation I spoke with people who have written books and articles on leadership; thought about the many clients with whom I worked over the years who were in leadership roles; and just plain tried to make sense of it all. What I came up with is the idea there are both key attributes and skills that make for a good leader, and by combining the two the true leader emerges as a person of influence, and yes power, in their organization.

So what are some key attributes of a leader? For me it’s about establishing credibility within an organization; having the ability to motivate and influence others toward a common goal; and, having the courage to take risks by challenging the status quo in the process. Oh, and if that were not enough, it’s having the self-discipline and perseverance to carry it all out.

So what are some key skills of a leader? Some that I came up with are problem solving, decision making, setting priorities and goals, delegating, negotiating, but probably most importantly, communicating. Also, being resourceful, a good listener and observer are important as well. Nothing new here, but in combination these skills lead to those key attributes which make a powerful case for the emerging leader.

An example of someone who demonstrates these key attributes and skills is someone who simply is not trying to “fix” things on how others did them in the past. This approach will only alienate you from the people who can best help you achieve your and the organization’s goals. You may be able to identify a problem, and think of a quick solution based on your past experiences, but until you understand how “their problem” got to where it is you have no credibility. And by the way, “they” know how the problem got to where it is, you don’t!

What makes for a good leader (I discovered) is that as a leader you can’t change personalities, but you can change the context in which people accept change. Regardless of people’s differences (and their levels of acceptance when it comes to change) most people value being heard and appreciated for the work they do. Hilary Potts in her book on leadership “The Truth About Change – A Leader’s Guide to Successfully Executing Change Initiatives” talks about the importance of people’s need at all levels within an organization to know what’s in it for them when it comes to change.

This simple notion of how people view their leaders’ ability to clearly articulate their new strategies, ideas and processes for implementing change, and how it will affect their work and job security, is what gives a leader credibility. Viewed this way the true leader is the person who uses his/her power of position to influence others in a positive way versus the leader who simply tries to influence others through a sheer exercise of their power. So, if you’re currently in a leadership role try to reach out to at least 3 people a day to provide positive feedback; be visible throughout all levels of your organization; and, continually think about what you can do to improve your leadership ability.

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