From a Lighthouse to "The Avengers": What makes great Leaders
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Last week, I met with a group of young Indonesian talents who want to invent a start-up offering learning content on Leadership Development. "How can we build more and more Leaders in Indonesia? What is the ideal journey and path that one needs to follow as a curriculum" -- that was the problem statement. I was happy to share my thoughts as a practitioner. And my first response to that question was: "You might want to ask a better question: how can we facilitate and help potential leaders undergo a journey to become ones".
Here is my view on building Leaders: everyone has their unique path to leadership. There is no "single one truth or ideal journey that one needs to follow as curriculum". Different Leaders will find out that their journey in becoming Leaders came through many different ways. There are certain principles that make the journey similar (i.e. the 70-20-10 model invented by McCall-Lombardo-Eichinger which says that learning happens by doing things (70%), talking about it (20%), and formally learning about it in a classroom/e-learning/podcast (10%)) -- including in becoming Leaders), but what makes each leader different is because they are simply unique. In summary, there are common principles that are similar, and there are unique individual elements that are very different. Let me talk through it.
Here are three common principles in the leadership journey of the most successful Leaders I saw throughout my experience:
1. Most of these leaders have key essential mindsets, that make them thrive and bounce back whenever they hit roadblocks. Different experts coined these mindsets differently, but in simplest terms, these are basic stuff that cores to these Leader's existence: Purpose, Growth Mindset, Humility (leads to collaborating with others), and Authenticity (becoming their best self, instead of trying to be someone else's). In my view, these four elements are key to any great Leaders I had the privilege to work with and work for. These mindsets act like a lighthouse for these Leaders, which made their towering presence felt by people around them. Just like how a 'lighthouse' works, these mindsets make great Leaders survive various challenges, as they navigate their ships (be it a company, or a country) out of storms. A famous story that I keep playing in my mind about the existence of such 'a lighthouse' was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (I studied International Politics as my Bachelor degree). President John F. Kennedy was very Purposeful about peace as an ultimate solution for world politics. For 13 days, Kennedy and his trusted working team hold the lighthouse strongly amidst push from his war cabinets to strike first. And because of Kennedy's strength in holding into that Peace Principle lighthouse, he ended up solving a complicated cold-war standoff that might have gone wrong and led the world to avoid a potential nuclear war as his legacy. There are many Leaders who acted based on their 'lighthouse' in our everyday life, which makes wiser and better choices than others who don't have such a lighthouse in their minds.
2. Most of these leaders are thriving because of necessity, and not because of choice. I saw a lot of real-life stories where a leader who took over higher accountability in the organization thrived as long as they practiced the four mindsets mentioned -- despite, these appointments were 'forced by the situation' due to lack of succession planning or unexpected attrition due to the high-pace market dynamics. This is also the reason why most talent acceleration programs (i.e. in Graduate Traineeship scheme in many global FMCG) basically consisted of successions of 'forced-by-situation' assignments to let these leaders shape themselves. This is also the reason why, most of the screening and selection processes for such talents are emphasizing potential first, instead of looking only at the current rate of performance.
3. Most of these leaders are playing their strengths and leveraging their leadership style well and complementing them with diverse team members who can complete their weaknesses, hence making weakness irrelevant. "Nobody is perfect" is a phrase we need to accept and live with. Every one of us was born in a certain environment, went through certain life events, and met different teachers/idols/mentors in various stages of life. Do the permutation yourself, and logically you will see that no two Leaders will become exactly the same. Realizing that nuance as early as possible is important for a Leader to confidently build his/her presence, crafting his/her skills, and building a diversely complementing team that makes him/her create legacy/impacts that made them remembered as a Great Leader. It is because of this third principle, I want to highlight how Leaders should identify their strength and leadership style earlier, which bridge me to what are uniques to each and every one of them.
Here is the uniqueness that great Leaders usually (unconsciously) display in their leadership style, which makes them deliver long-lasting impacts and legacy, hence becoming authentic leaders that everyone admired:
1. They are being honest about their individual leadership style, and let their team members know it. Leadership is all about making an impact. Leadership style influences how Leaders communicate their impacts and how they exercise certain ways of thinking that look very normal for them, but potentially be aliens to the team members. Misunderstanding "intent" and "impacts" is the most common feature of a team that doesn't gel well.
Here's a real-life story from my previous stint: An introvert leader I was partnered with was very sharp and a deep-thinker. His data-driven analysis help the Board find underlying causes of why all company efforts and spending didn't bring the ROI and sales that are much needed. His meetings were also very effective, because he required a pre-read being sent, and spend time in the meeting to discuss decisions only. Because of the high-quality insights that are generated, including a great pre-read, there's a lot of data-crunching happening which makes his team burn midnight oils to ensure there is a well-prepared pre-read leading to the right decision. Unfamiliar with his leadership style, most of the team complained of being overworked as they are at the receiving ends of insight generations and data processing. What the team didn't know is that they have actually contributed to a business turnaround as there are many spot-on actions generated because the Board has started to solve the right problems. Being an introvert, he didn't like the limelight, or showing up and inspiring his team in a big Townhall; which, unfortunately, was needed by his team members considering he led a team of more than a hundred. So I was helping him back then by sharing the feedback, creating a communication and engagement roadmap where his Leadership Team is filling in the void in many Townhalls while he remains playing a role in team engagement through 1-on-1s and small-team meetings. At the same time, his Leadership Team is also stepped-up to help translate all the good intents through communicating One Voice across the team.
2. Not only being honest about their style, but these great Leaders also celebrate their unique strength by coming up with ideas that make him/her inspirational figure on a particular topic. Every Leader is an acting "CEO" -- stands for Chief Energy Officer. Leaders must build energy for their team members. A conservative and conventional way to energize a team was via a "carrots-and-sticks" approach -- ie. motivation by Reward, or by Punishment. Most people prefer the "Carrots" approach; the issue with that is: it is limited. During my time as HR professionals, the most common approach for Leaders who want a quick-fix was to promise their team members a Promotion if this-and-that deliverables are achieved. It is, unfortunately, a risky approach especially when most organizations are fighting fierce competition these days, and hence those promises might end up as a bubble when the reality hits as promotion opportunities become more and more limited. Even if someone gets promoted, they can't get another promotion in quick successions (i.e. in another 6 months), which leaves a big question on: "How to motivate them after got promoted?". The underlying issue of both Reward and Punishment is because those are external motivators.
It doesn't come from within. Great leaders are being authentic: playing on their strengths so that their team members are inspired to follow their path, contributing to the organization out of Purpose and passion to make a difference, acting as role-model, and walking the talks. These are leaders who turn on the lights when they enter the room and ignite energy from everyone out of their inner motivation. These Leaders came from both the extrovert and the introverts camps.
Here's another story. I have once partnered with an extremely introverted leader who leads a big team spread across Indonesian geography with a "servant leadership" style. His days spent on the field working hand-in-hand with his team members, spending time with the employee's family whenever he had a chance of visiting provinces, and he provided listening ears and empathically coach his team members even if it means a late-night stay in the office. All the above was all done out of his passion for leading and developing People. He inspired loyalty from his team. Trusts were high, and there is no "time-bomb" kind of issues happening simply because there is no barriers between him as Leader and the team members. And throughout time, he was even able to mentor many Leaders who then grew up as Managers in the organization. He shied away from limelights, prefer to play a backstage role, and always give credit to his team members whenever they deliver a home run. When he left for another role, most of his team members were in tears because he left a heart mark in their life as a legacy.
3. The third unique thing that these successful Leaders did was recruit or appoint a diverse-but-complementing Leadership Team. The term leadership team can easily mean direct reports (if they were privileged to have enough numbers of direct reports who has different style and strengths), or by collaborating with the right peers in synergizing their style together, in a mutual win-win solution. These leaders think about creating an ecosystem in anything they do. They realized that the speed of competition or challenges they are facing will be much bigger than their capability, no matter how expert he/she is in his/her field. Complementing him/herself is a logical solution in this path of thinking. This is why I classified this 'building a diverse team' act as a uniqueness because Leaders with different styles will approach this action # 3 differently.
In my next blog posts, I will talk about what are these "different styles" of Leadership using a Jungian approach, but for simplicity let us use Insight Discovery's terms of "four different colors" of Leaders for now: The Fiery Red, The Sunshine Yellow, The Earth Green, and The Cool Blue. They are complementing each other. I once joked with a fellow facilitator about how these "colors" were actually portrayed unconsciously in movies because the more challenging a plot is, the more "colors" it required to solve bring an end to the story, hence the Scriptwriter or the Director of the movie will need to build a group of heroes that collaborate together with various leadership style to defeat their enemy. Let's take the epic Marvel Cinematic Universe's "The Avengers" story as an example: to defeat Thanos in the "Endgame", requires all different leadership styles of Fiery Red (portrayed by "Iron Man" character), Cool Blue (portrayed by "Captain America" character), Sunshine Yellow (portrayed by "Spiderman" character) and Earth Green (portrayed by "Black Widow" character) collaborating together. Again, these 'mapping' of comic icons to personality types are all mine (no literature refers to it).
But the point I want to make is that Leaders who are aware of his/her unique strength and style will approach things differently, and hence, will complement them with a different leadership team to make an impact.
So, if you are on your way to developing yourself as a Leader, I really hope that this post will help you in navigating your journey. If you are in the process of mentoring someone to become a Leader, consider all the advice I have in your next 1-on-1s or coaching/mentoring session. If you are an HR practitioner who helps a business partner to develop leaders, please use these insights in designing/developing your leadership development program.
I will write about how different styles of Leaders act in my next post on how they bring their uniqueness into a team, and what to do if you are happened to be that Leader: in both "the boss" context, or if you are peer leaders who can collaborate to make things happen and better together with him/her.
Let's build more leaders in Indonesia.