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Leadership is a concept that appeals strongly to me. Before I begin with the attributes that I feel are essential for all leaders I feel that defining leadership is warranted. Upon investigating a definition that appeals to me I found that this would be simple task was the most difficult of any in the writing of this paper. I particularly like the definition provided by the Leadership Institute at Harvard College defines leadership as 'the skill of motivating, guiding, and empowering a team towards a socially responsible vision', because the themes of morality, integrity and team motivation are necessary group dynamics.
Having been in a leadership role I feel that despite the fact some are natural leaders everyone can learn to become effective leaders with training and practice. With the length and breadth of definitions and attributes that are championed in leadership theory I found that regardless of the many different leadership styles, there are four attributes that I have identified above all others as essential to the art of leadership.
Attribute #1 - truly inspire (motivation)
The ability to truly inspire is a distinct attribute that natural leaders have in abundance. Barrack Obama is clearly a natural orator who demonstrated true inspiration of the voting populous in the 2008 US presidential campaign. Even though Obama is a natural leader is speeches upon analysis practiced and deliberative. This tells me that even the most natural leaders recognise the need for betterment through training and practice.
As I stated earlier I have been in leadership positions in the workplace on many occasions. With four years entrepreneurial experience I found that motivating others is a difficult and sometimes hazardous task that is fraught with obstacles. I can state without embarrassment that this is an attribute that I most definitely had to learn the difficult way. With my first tentative step into entrepreneurship in May 2008, I assumed that my former co-workers would accept our changed workplace dynamic. One employee in particular stated that I would fail in my new role of employer and openly opposed my foundation of a new company in place of our liquidated employers. I valued this employees input into the former organisations business practices and I felt that I could in time motivate this employee into accepting my leadership. Ultimately I could not inspire this individual and his employment was terminated.
I have worked long and hard to become an inspirational leader, a leader with the attributes needed to inspire others. The acquisition of the attributes needed to truly inspire has been a constant goal of mine since I embraced the role of leader. The first opportunity of learning that I encountered was mentoring from a well-respected retired engineering entrepreneur. His advice was especially helpful in inspiring me in times of adversity. Other sources of learning were practice and the difficult decision of returning to full time education after a nine year absence. Even though I am no longer actively involved in LKB Engineering on a day-to-day basis, I feel that I effectively motivated the LKB team to endure in event of crisis. I remain involved in an infrequent advisory role. Where once I was the learner, now I serve as the mentor / coach role.
Attribute #2 - Vision
To truly inspire a leader must have a clear vision and be able to effectively communicate this vision. The most visionary leader that comes to mind is Steve Jobs. Although Jobs was seen as the face of apple corp. he was a true visionary in multiple industries, a notable company that Jobs was involved with was Pixar. When Pixar and Disney merged it was Steve Jobs who was the single largest shareholder of Disney stock. The vision of Steve Jobs was so ingrained in Apple that it is only upon is untimely dead that Apple began to decline again.
As with most leaders I had a keen knowledge and experience in my chosen field upon assuming the leadership role in LKB Engineering. This attribute held me in good stead especially when I started the company at short notice with the vision of cutting costs while maintaining strong relationships with customers and suppliers alike. When the staff of the old firm realised that the main cost saving exercise would be a halving of their numbers and a considerable wage reduction for the remaining. I had a clear vision of what was necessary and while it was unpopular at first I persevered and eventually convinced the staff of the validity of my actions. After I left LKB to start other enterprises in 2010, I asked my assistant to assume the management / leadership role in the company. I spent a lot of time and energy in instilling my vision in her, although I realise that with new leadership comes a new vision. I asked her this week how her vision has diverged from the vision that I used while leading the company. Her answer was simple; she stated that the vision only changed when the recession impacted on our customer base.
I can state that vision was never an attribute that I lacked, I have started three companies since the start of the recession in 2008 and I will do so again when opportunity arises. I feel that the difficulty I have found is in inspiring / motivating others that is where my vision finds opposition. I believe that my work experience has shown me that others have valid visions on the direction of the company and that an effective leader will have the ability to recognise where others can assist in the evolution of the vision over time. Despite this the vision must remain concrete as an organisation without vision is an organisation without unity of goals. And a team without a visionary leader is much less likely to see opportunity when faced with adversity.
Attribute #3 - empowerment
Effective leaders must be able to recognise the benefits of empowering teammates by providing them with the ability and opportunity to do things, as well as motivate them to do it. A leader is most effective if the team is capable and willing. I personally favour the rewards approach to empowerment. I have found that the majority are motivated by monetary reward throughout my entrepreneurial adventures. It is the rarer person that is motivated by alternate rewards and I believe that it is this person that is most worthy of empowerment. As I have stated before I mentored my assistant for the role of leader in LKB Engineering and it was her personal integrity that motivated me to do so. By demonstrating that her allegiance was not fiscally motivated our trust was very strong. I also have found that the team has a vast amount of concentrated experience that the leader cannot hope to have alone. Therefore positive empowerment is not only the best means of improvement it is essential to the betterment of the team and the leader. The leader of sporting teams is often the coach and that person is never directly involved in the action, the leader must empower the team to fulfil the common goal. This is a strong analogy of the leader / team empowerment dynamics. Through empowerment the fostering of trust will strengthen the team and provide robust motivation.
From the lecture notes on contemporary leadership styles I learned that I am an advocate of transformational leadership. Transformational leadership involves the use of collaboration and open communication to transform their employees' priorities to reflect the organisational interests. Transformational leaders influence people and events. Figure 1 below represents the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid where five leadership styles are represented. Upon discussion in lectures and workshops I realised that the most competent of leaders will be heavily leaning towards team orientation leadership models on the grid. Upon reflection I believe that when actively became a leader that I was firmly in the produce or perish (authoritative) leadership zone. Over time I have learned to move towards team orientated leadership and although I have made progress I will have endeavour to continue to do so. It is only through empowerment that team leader can be truly reached, but I have found that I favour limitation of access to knowledge in sensitive areas will limit my progress somewhat. I believe in empowerment in increments, through the establishment of trust over time.
Figure Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid (www.mindtools.com)
Attribute #4 - willingness to assume responsibility
The willingness to accept responsibility is an essential leadership attribute that all leaders must possess. Effective leaders must have the courage to make the difficult choice when necessary. The Irish political landscape is littered with examples of where our elected leaders have failed to demonstrate the willingness to accept responsibility for their actions. Time after Time our governments have put their re-election before the needs of their nation's people. The results of such activities are reflected in our current recession / austerity laden times.
Responsibility is the burden of leadership. It became clear to me that regardless of the empowerment of the team that the ultimate responsibility lies with the leader. The leader must be able to withstand the difficulties and crisis that organisations will without doubt encounter. Being leader is a role that is most difficult in times of adversity. This is where the leader's vision and inspiration are of utmost need. Overcoming adversity is most definitely a learned attribute. It is only through great difficulty that a leader will discover the true depth of their leadership abilities. Steve Jobs is the embodiment of the willingness to accept responsibility. It was one of the few attributes that he seemed to have to learn. It was only through the loss of power at apple corp. that enabled Jobs to triumphantly return the organisation to its former glory.
This is a lesson well learned for me. I was aware that the leaders I worked under before I assumed the role had great difficulty with accepting responsibility and I worked hard to learn from their mistakes so that I would lessen the impact when I would assume the responsibility. In times of adversity the decisions needed for the long term viability of the firm will often be unpopular and resented by others. I believe that firmness and effective execution of vision is essential in these times. I started LKB Engineering with my brother in May 2008, just prior to the implosion of the Celtic tiger economy. Throughout my leadership and guidance of the organisation we were in adverse business conditions. There was constant fluctuation of order quantity and size, and our primary means of offsetting this was to place all but key staff on short-time. This was a very difficult decision and as leader it was my responsibility to designate hours and eventually offer redundancies. I believe that an effective leader will have the conviction of recognising responsibility even in the face of unpopularity.
All four of these attributes are in my opinion essential for effective leadership. There is a lot of crossover between these attributes and while each is essential in its own right, collectively the sum of these traits is also essential for effective leadership. Leaders lacking these qualities should endeavour to acquire these attributes to the best of their ability and recognise that leadership is a career long learning process.