Any time I break the light in the door of a dealership there is discussion on the topic of leadership. Common comments include: “I don’t know who will lead the group after I am gone”, “We cannot find good people who want to lead”, “My kids just don’t seem to want to take the responsibility of a leader”, “I would love to have more stores but I don’t have proven leaders to run them.”
Depending upon the level of frustration, the dialogue also generates questions that include “Is leadership a personality trait or can it be taught and learned?” and “How do you determine if someone has leadership potential?” The predictability of this dialogue merits sharing a few thoughts and ideas that Dr. Merlot and I have picked up as we have worked our way around the patch.
For openers, let’s confirm a definition to make sure we are talking about the same thing. Leadership is not a Rasputin, mystic monk art form. Leadership is the use of power and social influence to inspire or motivate others. Based upon this definition, if you are motoring down a path and look back over your shoulder to discover that nothing is happening and no one is following, you are not leading. According to my bombastic buddy Dr. Merlot, if you have stopped pushing and intimidating those you are attempting to lead and no one is following; you are just taking a walk. And if you are pushing and intimidating, you better keep your eye on the group because no doubt they are considering walking over you.
We all have social influence. We are all leaders with various levels of influence, both good and bad. I tell all owners that irrespective of what their words may say, their true motivation and perspective will be observed or felt and ultimately evolve into the leadership that defines the organization’s culture, good or bad. I also inform family member employees that the first day they walk onto the lot they become a powerful leader serving as a behavior role model for a large portion of the employees who feel that they should not have to do anything a family member is not willing to do. The only question is what will be the nature of their leadership, effective or ineffective, positive or negative? I tell aspiring managers that they have already arrived as leaders! The only question is how much opportunity they will earn to expand their influence on the organization. Every day is a test and if they bat better than Ted Williams’ best (.405) there is no limit to what they can accomplish.
So acknowledging that effective leadership is a critical component to the achievement and continuation of success, let’s break it down into what I call the Four Absolutes of Leadership.
Let’s go first to the obvious, leaders are out front and when the wind is in their face they are going to catch a bug on occasion. Therefore, the critical First Leadership Absolute is confidence; the willingness to take risk and be vulnerable. Those that cannot take disappointment or criticism should button their lips and stay back in the pack where it is safer. There is no condemnation in being a follower, but there is condemnation in whining about leadership opportunities when that same individual is not willing to take risks and eat a few bugs.
The Second Leadership Absolute is competence, which thankfully reduces the number of “ouches” and disappointments. Knowing what you are doing generally creates opportunities to do what you know. If an aspiring leader does not know what they are doing, they are ultimately going to disillusion those they are trying to influence. Faking it will only get a person so far in leadership; eventually they have to be able to achieve the confidence of those they are leading by demonstrating competence. The contending leader (conscious incompetent) discovers through experience what they don’t know and does what it takes to build competence. The pretending leader (unconscious incompetent) keeps plowing forward with a hope or prayer that they get where they want to go before the group figures out they don’t know what they are doing.
The Third Leadership Absolute is maturity. The essence of maturity is assuming responsibility; accepting the reality that leaders are responsible for what occurs under their influence: no excuses. Leaders also understand that they are responsible for the welfare of those they are leading. Maturity achieves the perspective that success is a process not an event, and that success is based upon the failures we learn from. Dr. Merlot would expound upon this and add that “Irresponsible leader” is an oxymoron because the two words, immature and leader, are mutually exclusive!
The Fourth Leadership Absolute is respect. Respect for a leader can be defined as earned acknowledgement of confidence, competency and maturity from those that are looking to follow. Respect activates these desired followers to follow, otherwise it is just an experiment intended to determine if the dude knows what he’s doing. I would love to just give you respect and be acclaimed as a management alchemist; however, irrespective of whether you are an owner, manager or family member employee, you have to earn it! With respect, those that are capable of following will follow, and without respect, as described previously, you’re just exercising.
So if you have been thinking about succession, it’s best to also think about leadership. When neither Dr. Merlot nor I are around, ask a colleague, friend or supervisor their opinion of you as a leader. That will be your first demonstration of confidence because you will be opening yourself up to some potential “honesty bruises.” But not to worry, you will survive and you should grow from the experience. In the absence of someone you trust, consider a quick assessment. Ask yourself, “How would I grade myself (between one and five) in confidence, competence, maturity and respect?” I also suggest that you grade your successor and/or key managers similarly before you make any far reaching decision regarding their role in the continuation of business success. If anyone scores under 15, you have leadership challenges but not necessarily problems. If anyone scores below 10 you’ve got leadership issues, but that should come as no surprise because you would have only validated what you have been feeling. If not addressed, these issues will become problems. Dr. Merlot says “management can hide lots of things but that does not include the absence of leadership.”
Use this article and exercise to affirm your thinking about the importance of leadership to succession. Develop an action plan for leadership growth because leadership is not exclusively a God given trait. No doubt there are born leaders, but the vast majority of the throng learned leadership step by step, blow by blow and scrap by scrap. Trust me; I have seen iron-ore bullies turned into leadership gold. The most important component to growing as a leader is having the unreserved desire to be a better leader and a willingness to accept coaching.