12 Things smart leaders know

by Keith Coats

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Want to become a better leader? Read on for some insight into those actions, traits and behaviours business owners need to learn and continuously strengthen to become better leaders.

Charlie Parker, a genius on the saxophone, once said:

“Jazz comes from who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”

Charlie was spot on, at least when it comes to leadership; I know very little about jazz.

Leadership is about who you are. It is about character. It is about looking inwards in order to lead outwards. Successful leadership is not based on a set of external skills; the best leaders are those who know themselves, know their strengths and play to those strengths. They understand something of the connected, relational and paradoxical nature of the world in which they live and lead. They embrace change as opportunity rather than a threat and remain humble, lifelong learners who find wisdom in the small, the simple and the overlooked.

So just what will it take to lead into the future? Here are 12 practical pointers to consider when leading your business:

1 Relationships are more valuable than transactions

In the new economy, relationships will ultimately be more important than transactions. While efficient, cost effective transactions are important in business, customers are starting to demand relationships. This will determine loyalty and create word-of-mouth sales in the future.

2 Feedback is essential

Gather feedback where you can, and then act on it. All growth occurs through what has been described as the “feedback loop” action, feedback, synthesis. Without feedback there can be no growth, and this feedback must inform your future actions. What systems do you as a leader have in place to ensure that you benefit from reliable feedback?

3 In leadership who you are matters most

Who you are (character) and how you live (behaviour) are important and should be in alignment. The ultimate leadership test is a character test rather than a skill-set one. Character is forged over the long-haul and there are no shortcuts.

4 Life is all about paradox

Paradox is part of life and business: understand it, work with it and learn from it. Examples of some of the paradoxical forces at work include: global vs. local, big vs. small, relational vs. technological, centralised vs. decentralised…

5 Adaptability is crucial

Business growth comes about not through planning but through adapting. Adapting is the new way of living, of changing. In a predictable, ordered world, planning was possible, but no longer. Think about what it is that you need to discard to adapt. Or what you need to keep? What do you need to rearrange? These questions are at the very core of any evolutionary process.

6 Collaborate not control

In a relational or networked world, leadership is no longer about control but rather about collaboration. It is an important shift in leadership style to both understand and put into practice.

7 By inviting participation, you create ownership

Write this down some place where it will shout at you daily. Consider how you can employ this thinking across all levels of your organisation. When your employees feel as though this is their business, many of the things that occupy your time and attention now will simply fall away.

8 Diversity is to be embraced

Diversity is the soil from which the twin challenges of (healthy) conflict and innovation will grow and flourish. Harnessing diversity can produce resilience and as turbulence looks to be the “new normal”, what leader wouldn’t want resilience to be part of their organisation’s DNA?

9 It’s more important to be curious than certain

As James Collins and Jerry Porras put it in their book Built to Last, this is all about “trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works”. You may make mistakes, but these also offer learning opportunities. It was mythologist, writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell who wrote: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” What then are the questions you should be asking; questions that will spark learning and curiosity?

10 You need to embrace the marginal

This is where the future is. Physicist David Bohm once said: “The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.”

Smart leaders know where to find the fringe and how best to manage it in order to create change and stimulate progress. Who represents “the fringe” in your business? Contact them now and set-up a time when you can take them to coffee and explore their thinking and ideas.

11 Social media is a non-negotiable

Engaging in social media is not optional. It is a mind-shift before it is a technology spend. Leaders need to understand that they cannot “control” the conversations on social media but they do need to influence the conversations. The disruption that is social media is massive and in many instances it is proving to be a game-changer. As a leader you simply cannot afford to remain ignorant in this area.

12 Stories matter

Smart leaders will increasingly be seen as the storytellers within the organisations they lead. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart. We inhabit the great stories of our culture. We live through stories. We are lived by the stories of our race and place. Look for the stories. Acquiring these navigation points and skills, unfamiliar as they may be, will ultimately determine whether or not companies heading for tomorrow will thrive, or forever be lost at sea. Go on, take Charlie Parker’s advice, live it!

This article first appeared in Your Business magazine. Read the latest issue here!


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