Some rules on leadership

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

I once watched a CNN show hosted by Fareed Zakaria on leadership. He interviewed a wide range of leaders from different backgrounds and it was obvious that his intention was to portray leadership as un-singular by nature, highly changeable depending on the different contexts in which leadership is being exercised. In short, Mr. Zakaria wanted to show that leadership differs depending on the situation or organization. What was funny was that, despite trying so hard to elicit confirmation of his theory, the answers were quite the opposite of what he wanted.

Rather, contrary to the belief that leadership varies according to differing conditions, a commonality actually was undeniably present in all great leaders, whether it be the head of state or the manager of a small company. Also, unlike the fantasies of those obsessed with political correctness and the democratization of governance (infatuated as they are with leading by committees), individuals do matter. And leadership by an individual is a significant thing indeed.

Here is my own personal list of rules that, in my own observations, true leaders follow. None of these are original and most can actually be attributed to common sense. Even more, a high degree of that contained in the list would be quite familiar to anybody who has had experience running an organization or, at the very least, worked for a living.

First on my list is that leaders should "Know clearly what they want to achieve." I’ve always found memorable Charles De Gaulle’s opening line in his memoirs: "I have always had a certain idea of France." That alone says a lot about the kind of man De Gaulle was and the kind of leader that France had in him. These leaders exactly knew where their country was and where they want to bring the country to. However, indispensable to this is that the leader knows himself as well and comfortable with who he is. Positions of leadership are not the time to start learning about oneself. One should have done that a long time ago. While it is true that one can grow into leadership through time, it merely works on material that is already present. A man who does not know who he is will not know what he wants and definitely will not know what they want to achieve as leader.

Another is that leaders should "Communicate clearly but keep communications to a minimum." Admittedly, one of the reasons for this is that leaders should keep a certain distance, maintaining detachment, preserving a mystique for his office. However, an even more practical reason is to avoid confusion. A person who needs too many words to convey something is a person who has not mastered his subject. And, related to the first rule, if a person is himself confused then his own pronouncements will be confused.

A third rule is "Leaders surround themselves with smart people and are very careful who they choose." Leaders are never so insecure as to hire those who are better than they are in some aspects. They have egos healthy enough to deal with the super smart. Among the functions of a leader, this has got to be one the most important. To those who argue that leading is essentially a team function, Jack Welch has this to say: " ‘A’ players hire fellow ‘A’ players; ‘B’ players hire ‘B’ players."

This is complemented by Rule 4: "Leaders respect, encourage contrary opinions." Particularly in today’s complex world, no single person can have all the necessary information and skills to arrive at a reasonably intelligent decision. I mean, Harvard graduates or those with Phds will still need to have the humility to know that there are other co-workers out there with the insight and expertise to get the job done. All the more so those who don’t have the same credentials.

The following rule is really a no-brainer: "Leaders never ask others to do what they themselves aren’t willing to do." People, if they’re well adjusted and normal, know instinctively hypocrisy when they see it. Nobody wants to follow a hypocrite. People would be happy to make sacrifices for a cause but only if they saw that their leaders are sharing in that sacrifice. Look at Britain’s leaders during World War II. Leaders could have flaws but being perceived a hypocrite could never be one of them.

Then this very important rule: "Promote merit, have no tolerance for incompetence, demand accountability." Bottom line, a leader is there to get results. There are just simply two kinds of people: those who get things done and those who don’t. Friendships, personal loyalties are important, but if these are hindering the achieving of results then sacrifices must be made. Because that’s what leaders do.

Finally, leaders should have character, competence, and integrity. Without these three, anybody can have all the popularity and good intentions in the world, but, frankly, it wouldn’t matter.