Monday, January 05, 2015

Leadership: In My Own Words

With all of the scholarship on leadership, what could I add to the conversation? I have my ideas. And if we reflect on the decline of our industry, an honest in-the-mirror assessment of bank leadership merits discussion.

In 2004 I wrote an article for a banking industry association entitled Lead Like Lincoln. The article identified three traits that were critical to Lincoln's success: Vision, Communication, and Commitment. Ten years later, I stand by those traits.

At this stage of the post, I could cite studies, books, and management luminaries on what makes great leaders. Instead, I will give you my slightly varnished view, straight from the gut. Slightly varnished because I grew up in Scranton, where directness has greater value than tact. Not always an admirable trait for a consultant, or a leader.

A great leader has a vision for the future. This is particularly important and challenging in rapidly changing industries like technology and media. It was not particularly important in slow moving industries like banking. 

But that has changed. The greatest banking leaders can see their bank several years into the future, and organize resources around making that vision a reality.

A great leader is humble. As with any general statement on leadership traits, there are exceptions. Say what you will about Steve Jobs. Humble he was not. But hard charging, egotistical leaders can only move an organization so far, and to a certain size, before the ego starts to become a liability. Recall that Jobs got fired from the company he founded. Not an easy task to accomplish. 

The humble leader, on the other hand, takes counsel from his/her people and understands that no human being is all knowing, or even close to it. A great leader does not judge his/her importance by an org chart or the size of paycheck, but by the happiness of their people (sum total of all of their people, not just keeping an individual happy) and the purpose of their work

A great leader does not fear failure. Failure is the lesson plan for success. Avoid failure, and the leader understands that their company is destined for the ash heap of irrelevance. In banking, failure is clearly a dirty word when relating to the overall bank. But the most innovative and sustainable business models in our industry are moving farther away from business as usual into less tried and true paths. If there was ever a need for great leaders in banking, now is the time.

A great leader has great followers. When the Navy trained me on leadership, an early lesson was that before becoming a great leader, a sailor must be a great follower. So before assuming leadership, a future leader supports their current leader, working with purpose for the betterment of the company, with no interest in highlighting shortcomings of their leader or those around them in order to move them up the organizational ladder.

Surrounding yourself with great followers implies hiring those that can step into your shoes, or that have such potential and you are dedicated to ensuring their development. Great followers are smart, motivated, humble, forward looking, and care about their colleagues and the company. 

Great followers give the leader informed information and opinions, and if the leader, after careful reflection, decides to go against the follower's recommendation, the great follower charges forward lock-step with the leader.

Poor leaders don't want great followers for fear that they can easily slip into the leader's shoes. Great leaders cheer their followers and prepare them to slip into the leader's shoes.

Great leaders are committed. If a vision is worth pursuing, should it be abandoned when obstacles rear their inevitable head? Weak leaders cut their losses. Great leaders forge forward.

Great leaders are likable. By this I don't mean liked by everyone at all times. They can make the difficult decisions, counsel employees, and be firm when necessary. But if a leader must motivate employees to challenge their boundaries and create great companies, employees must believe in the man or woman. 

Can a person with wavering honor or integrity, or is generally a jerk get the entire company to move as one in a direction that has great risk yet may lead to great reward for a sustainable period of time? 

I think not. 

What are your thoughts on leadership in financial services?


~ Jeff


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