Timing--the secret sauce that makes a great leader
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. -- Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the years, I have been asked many times what makes great leaders great.
My answer is that what separates great leaders from average leaders isn’t what they do – it’s when they do it. The differentiator is their ability to know when leadership needs to step up and when it needs to step back.
Specifically, great leaders step up in three critical times:
In times of transformative change. During such times, there are no easy answers and many well-intentioned people can have different opinions. There are no easy answers: It’s a dilemma, not a problem. Great leaders step up and, after listening to the different opinions, set the direction. Such leaders then go about getting everyone aligned by focusing on a higher purpose. They also deal effectively with the detractors and their own agendas and adeptly handle the ad hominem attacks.
In times of extreme challenge. When major obstacles arise that can threaten the entire organization, these great leaders don’t falter. They know that fear, doubt, and uncertainty (FUD) can spread like wildfire throughout an organization, and so they provide the desperately needed hope that any challenges will be overcome. They do so by appealing once again to a higher purpose and getting people to think back on obstacles they have overcome before. For example, when David fought Goliath, David began by saying he had beaten lions and bears before, and that he would beat Goliath. Once hope is established, great leaders then develop the strategy. They know they must work with only accurate information, so they hear firsthand from the frontline people dealing with the challenge. By being on location and putting themselves at risk, these leaders give people confidence in the strategy and in their leadership.
In times of major controversy. Trust breaks down during such times, causing people to erupt emotionally and even sometimes physically. I have seen and experienced this many times, even within departments. Leaders will also come under attack during such times by those who have seized power and don’t want the leaders to be involved. The first thing great leaders do is focus on re-establishing trust by meeting with all levels of the organization. When trust is regained, then all parties can be brought to the table by a leader who has shown that he or she is willing to face the risk with them.
You’ll notice that the common thread for great leaders is the ability to listen; to put themselves at risk for the benefit of others; get people focused on a higher goal; and then make decisions.
But what do great leaders do when not faced with such challenging times? Then they need to practice what I call “six-pack leadership.” Just like the plastic that keeps a six-pack of drinks together, so do these leaders keep individuals and organizations aligned. They keep everyone marching forward toward a common goal. They use each minor change, challenge and controversy as learning and “teachable” moments for the next generation of leaders.
Which of these times is your organization working through – transformation, challenge or controversy? Is it time for you to step forward, step back or take another listen?