Recently I stumbled across an article in the New York Times which I loved as much for its brevity as I did for its wisdom. The article is a condensed synopsis from the book “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” written by Adam Bryant, of The New York Times. The book, published by Times Books, analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. So, from his perspective and research, what does it take to lead an organization — whether it’s a sports team, a nonprofit, a start-up or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors of strong leaders?
Passionate curiosity – this trait describes a sense of fascination that some people have with everything around them. It is indispensable, no matter what the job is. We need to stay alert, awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more. The belief that we learn something from everyone they meet. This concept brings to mind “Is This Seat Taken?” and the belief that we can learn from the seemingly most insignificant encounters – literally from someone that sits next to us whether on an airplane, in a bar, or waiting on our table at dinner on Friday night. Strong leaders are, of course, paid to have answers and steer the ship; however, often their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions and listening to what is shared by anyone and everyone who crosses their path.
Confidence – this refers to a deep core strength of how to overcome challenges and adversity. This is not false bravado or an inauthentic “fake it til you make it” persona. This is an inner steel rod which steadies strong leaders when the gale force winds threaten to tip us over. Our “locus of control” describes our outlooks and beliefs which factor into the successes and failures in our lives. Do we blame failures on factors outside our control, or do we believe they have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what we can control? Adam describes this as “a positive attitude mixed with a sense of purpose and determination. People who have it will take on, and own, any assignment thrown their way.” Personally, I know nothing makes me happier than to hear a team member say: “Got it. I’m on it.”
Team Smarts – it is not enough to be the “sharpest knife in the drawer”. In fact, the CEOs interviewed stated that “playing nice with others” is #1 on the list. A strong leader needs to be able to build a team, manage a team, recruit well and work well with their peers. The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilize people who are not their direct reports. They “get” people, they meet them where they are, understand what makes them tick, and how to inspire and motivate them.
Keep It Simple – These CEOs stated that more is not necessarily better. The cumbersome, lengthy business plan is outdated and can lead to a convoluted approach. There was a time when simply having certain information was a competitive advantage. Now, in the Internet era, most people have easy access to the same information. That puts a greater premium on the ability to synthesize, to connect dots in new ways and to ask simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities. One of my mentor’s called this the “Granny Test” – our proposals, ideas, and plans need to be simple enough that our grandmother could understand them. Sage advice.
Fearlessness – as with most traits, fearlessness starts with an attitude. Attitude dictates life, and one of the 3 things which I believe everyone has control. (Click here for the other two.) Once we embrace this courageous approach of not accepting the status quo, we can gradually build this into a standard approach to taking more risks. I loved what Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, offers: “Fearlessness if seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken.” We all know how easy it is to “keep on keeping on”. However, true leaders need to push the envelope, get ahead of it, and innovate before it is really needed. This is scary and risky; yet, complacency is poison for any organization.
I realize that not all of us aspire to be CEOs or even senior leaders in business; however, there is no question these insights apply to all of us – in life and work. How can we apply these 5 perspectives to our lives?