I’m not sure what made me think about an article I read more than 10 years ago… but here I was Googling to find the story about the attributes necessary to achieve a leadership turnaround. The story about Continental Airlines appeared in the December 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine. While the original ideas are not my own, I am expanding the concept in terms of how we need to experience a shift in our leadership.
Shift is generally understood to mean change. So, when we think about the need for leadership shift… we are simply thinking about change. Or, are we? Maybe shift refers to the idea of replacement; substituting old ways of thinking about leadership with new ideas. Likewise, shift could be directional suggesting that the leader reconsider long-held beliefs and positions. Regardless of our definition, the concept eventually directs change in the leader.And change is a commodity that leaders often trade in.
Relying on the ideas in the original article as the foundation, our personal leadership shift can be accomplished through specific attributes. While none of the attributes are new to leadership, the idea that we change as a result of implementing these deserves special attention. Below are the seven attributes, each presented with an opening quote from Bonnie Reitz, then senior vice president at Continental.
Listening. “Listening is the key to knowing if what we are doing is right.”Too often we hear others without really listening. We recognize a noise coming from the vicinity of the other person, but our mind is racing to what we are going to say. Effective leadership requires us to slow down our thinking and speed up our listening. Listening is comprehension of what the other person is telling us before formulating a reply. Only through the experience of others can we really understand our leadership.
Focus. “Focus on what will make the biggest impact.” Similar to listening is focus. Paying attention to others and their ideas is critical to leadership. We too often spend energy on issues that are irrelevant or ultimately inconsequential; the squeaky wheel. Instead, by focusing on the important we can shape the future, one vision at a time. As John Maxwell so eloquently states, “A Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
Action. “If it’s worth doing, do it.”How often do you see leaders paralyzed by analysis; always waiting for more data to make a decision? Sometimes the best data is simply what we know is right. Warren Bennis knew this when he suggested that “Managers do things right and leaders do the right thing.” When deciding on a course of action, our head is important, but our heart should not be ignored. Good leadership is knowing which one to rely on to get things done.
Measurement. “What gets measured gets done.” It’s hard to ignore the irony of this attribute after I write about leading from the heart. But leadership is often a balance between estimation and quantification. Leaders too often infer what others need without investing time in true assessment or understanding. However, if we spend the time accurately appraising the situation, our leadership takes on an increased urgency.
No Surprises. “If something’s not going well, speak up.” I have two guiding principles that have served me well over many years as a leader: own my mistakes and always be truthful. This manifests in certain behaviors, one of which is I try never to surprise my boss or my team. Through proactive communication and honesty, I share what’s going well and what is not. Rowan Williams states is this way, “Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow.” And leaders should always be seeking to grow.
Strength. “Have strength of character in good times and in bad.”A true test of our leadership is how we react when things are not going our way. Our resilience to persevere through challenge is what separates leaders from others. Sometimes our limitations are just strengths waiting to happen.But strength implies more than just a resolute nature; it suggests a level of self-discipline and poise that guides decision making. It is living a life of leadership without pretense.
Integrity. “Do the best you can do.”Up to this point, I have agreed with Ms. Reitz. But simply doing our best seems to leave room for more. It implies reaching a point where we can stop trying. Leaders are called to be better than that; to never stop seeking improvement in ourselves and others. While we often think of this in terms of our principles, I see integrity more as a state of our being. As leaders we should strive for some perfect condition or unbreachable nature, like that of a ship’s hull.
While there can be as many attributes of leadership as there are leaders, I found these seven to be particularly interesting in terms of change. Like many leaders, I think change is inevitable and our success at it is dependent on our reaction to it. By being open to a shift in our leadership, we can evolve with the change instead of being consumed by it.