Wednesday, March 24, 2010

essence of leadership...

What are the essential qualities of an effective leader? Can these be recognized in young people? Can they be developed?

These questions were the topic of a meeting I recently had with a top admissions officer of a leading graduate school of business. This official was reflecting on the profile of applicants to be accepted in the school. She wanted to be sure that this profile was the most appropriate one, and not take anything for granted.

Great leadership seems easy to recognize, and you usually can tell when someone is lacking in leadership qualities. But how do you define it? This is a critical question both for selecting and developing your subordinates, and for developing your own leadership capabilities.

Here's a definition of leadership that has stuck with me: Leaders are "people who leave their footprints in their areas of passion."

Not surprisingly, I heard this definition in a presentation given by the admissions officer and a colleague of hers. And, in fact, this admissions officer was showing leadership by inviting me and others in to talk about admissions profiles: She was taking an already excellent process, and rather than being complacent with it, she was making it even better. She was leaving her footprints in her area of passion.

Some companies have a culture of relentless, almost compulsive, improvement. No matter how good the company is, it should be doing better. It reminds me of a Smithsonian exhibit on American ingenuity, "If We're So Good, Why Aren't We Better?"

By contrast, other companies are smugly stuck in the past. I remember one vice president telling me that his company was doing everything right because "if there were a better way, we would have found it, and we'd be doing it."

The lesson: When you have the lead, step on the gas. After all, that's how you got there.