WHAT IS LEADERSHIP…REALLY? Stepping back to ask the big question

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So, join your host, Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hi there. Welcome to episode four of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. Today, we explore what is leadership really, AKA stepping back to ask the big question. So now that you're getting a flavour for my style and the type of things that I focus on, this episode gives us an opportunity to explore what leadership is at its core and what it would mean to be an outstanding leader. 

Now, this is just to set baseline. We'll have a range of other episodes that deal with topics like what's the difference between leadership and management, the attributes of great leaders, and why these are so important, and of course, heaps of episodes on traps for young players.

Today, we're going to talk about a few things. First of all, why leaders are learners. Then, we'll move onto the fact that leadership can be tough but also unbelievably rewarding. We'll ask what the object of the exercise is for a leader, and this will feed into how we translate that into our daily work as a leader. I'm going to give you six simple things to focus on.

Now as usual, there'll be a free download accompanying this podcast episode, in this case, a cheat sheet for the six leadership focus areas that I've just mentioned. You can pick this up at www.yourceomentor.com/episode4. Let's get on with it.

One of my favourite definitions of leadership comes from former First Lady of the USA, Rosalynn Carter. What she said was, "A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." Now, I mentioned in the introduction that leaders are learners. Simply the fact that you're listening to this podcast is a great sign.

Firstly, it means that you're actually paying attention. It means you want to get better, and you don't start to learn about leadership until you're actually in a leadership role. That's why it's so hard to prepare for, but if you listen to any of my previous podcast episodes, it probably means you're seeing something in the content that's resonating with you and it helps put your experiences into context.

Just by being a learning leader, you set yourself apart from the pack because you're committed at least to some extent to becoming better. I could always tell when someone had the potential to be an exceptional leader because their drive to learn actually overcame their fear of what I thought about them. So, they'd be in my office asking questions all the time.

If I ever mentioned a book or a podcast, they'd be off to read it or to listen to it. This was not just sucking up to the boss. I've worked out how to spot that one a mile away, but unsurprisingly, many people lead with benign neglect. They don't think about their leadership, let alone work at it actively. They're virtually oblivious to the impact they have on the people around them.

Now, I call this benign neglect. It's not really negligence. It's just that people get caught up doing other stuff. So, they're off solving problems. They're off doing deals. They're developing strategy. They're talking to customers. There's a thousand ways to spend your time every day, and so it's easy to not focus on the leadership component, which is just so critical to getting results and driving value.

Leadership can be tough, but it can also be unbelievably rewarding. Now, I came out of the blocks pretty hard in the first three episodes because I wanted to make a point. The decision to become a leader shouldn't be made simply because someone thought it might be a good idea to promote you.

You will have an increasingly significant impact on other people's lives if you choose to be a leader and rise through an organisation. This power shouldn't be taken or used lightly. In next week's episode, we're going to explore the use of power by leaders. I wish I'd had someone give me this guidance when I was young.

No one starts as a great leader, but you at least have to accept that the challenge exists and shoulder the responsibility for becoming better. So, the first piece of guidance I'd give you is to start by checking your intent. As long as it's all about you, you can't be even a competent leader, let alone a great leader. 

Leadership isn't about you being the best. It's about making your people better. When this happens and you see the lights go on in people's eyes, this is the return on investment for a leader. It completely overshadows any of the pain that you will go through by doing the tough work of leadership on the way through. Now, I was a long way into my leadership career before this dawned upon me. I was arrogant, and it was all about me proving how good I was.

I was driven to be successful, and at times, this was definitely at the expense of the people around me and below me. Now, I'm happy to say that the shame and embarrassment that I feel about my early leadership mistakes has since been replaced by enormous pride, though I've worked on this so hard since that time to become better and to see the people around me benefit.

Paradoxically, the better I get, the more I can see my leadership weaknesses. Now, this is quite a natural thing. If you think about trying to improve the time that you can run for 100-meter dash, and I'm not talking about being chased by a bear or on a Saturday night in high heels and a skirt. What I'm talking about is going out to the track and putting on your athletic gear and trying to run 100 meters.

Now, if the best you can do is run 100 meters in 30 seconds, then it's relatively easy to get your time from 30 seconds down to 20 seconds. However, if you're world-class and you're trying to get your time down from 9.9 seconds to 9.85, that is incredibly difficult. So, you'll need to accept that the better we get, the harder we need to work at it.

So, let's talk about what the object of the exercise is for a leader. The higher up you go in any organisation, the less you can achieve yourself, and the more you need to rely on those in your organisation below, beside, and above you. That's why for me, the object of the exercise for any leader is simply to create a high-performance constructive culture.

Everything you do as a senior leader either builds or detracts from the culture of your organisation. As a leader, you need to understand this one simple fact. Leadership drives culture. Culture drives performance. Now, culture is simply the way we do things around here. It's the behavioural and performance norms that an organisation has.

Regardless of whether you've consciously set out to develop a certain culture or the culture has grown organically, every organisation has a culture. So, the ultimate aim for a leader is to influence her people to create a culture in which everyone does the right work in the right way with the right intent.

Now, we see what happens to organisations that don't have the right cultures throughout, and it doesn't matter whether it's businesses, religious organisations, schools, not-for-profit organisations, the impact of a poor culture does not discriminate. Now, a great example that's playing out in real time at the moment is the Hayne Royal Commission into the banking industry in Australia.

The hearings have uncovered some incredible breaches of customer trust, all of which are predominantly failures of organisational values and culture. This has caused the major banks some serious reputational damage and value loss. Spare a thought for the leaders. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia, or CBA, is Australia's largest company by market capitalisation and its then-chief executive, a gentleman by the name of Ian Narev.

Now, those who have worked very closely with Ian over the years would tell you a couple of things about him. The first thing is that he's super smart, but at that level, you expect everyone to be super smart. The thing about Ian, though, he's an incredibly decent human being. He's resilient. He's emotionally balanced, and he has some of the hallmarks of a great leader. 

As some of the failings of the CBA culture became clear through the investigations, I found myself asking a very important question. How much influence do you think Ian had at the level of the organisation at which these transgressions occurred? In an organisation of 50,000-plus people, it's all about having the leadership in place through all levels of the business to drive the right values and behaviours within a high performance culture.

Now, I'm not picking on CBA by any means. All of the big banks and insurance companies have suffered these symptoms to some extent, but it certainly does focus us down on what the object of the exercise is for a leader. It's not just about what gets done, it's also about how it gets done, and it's where we come to culture.

Now ultimately, the goal is to create the right environment for people to flourish in so that they can produce their best work, thereby delivering value for the organisation. As I think I've said before, value can come from many different sources. It's not just purely financial value, nor is it even able to be quantified in many cases.

Now, I know all this stuff about culture sounds a little bit wanky, but don't mistake the culture stuff for being soft or touchy-feely. Now, creating the right environment for your people to flourish in implies that all of your leaders are driving relentlessly towards a high-performance culture. To do this, four things have to be present.

As with our CBA example and Ian Narev, it's not just in you, it's in all your leaders right through the line. So, the first thing is they have to be able to connect with their people on a personal level. John Maxwell once put it best when he said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.'

The second thing is, they care enough about each of their people to be honest with them, to stretch them, and to demand their best. This is even when it's uncomfortable for leader or particularly when it's unappreciated by their people. The third is every leader sets high standards for behaviour and performance.

Finally, people know that the leadership of the organisation is serious about its duty of care in taking accountability for its people and their welfare. The object of the exercise, though, is to create a culture of excellence. I hope you all had a chance to listen to last week's podcast episode, Excellence Over Perfection.

So, how does this translate into the work of a leader? Ultimately, when I was chief executive of CS Energy, I saw the main function of my role as to set the tone, the pace, and the standard for the organisation. From this, everything else flowed. So, how does it manifest? Now obviously, this is more difficult if you aren't in the corner office because you're subject to your boss's ability to do this.

No matter where you are in the organisational hierarchy, these rules pretty much apply. They need to be scoped down to your part of the world. Now, figuring that out is sometimes a challenge, but it will pay itself back in spades. As I mentioned before, there's still a bunch of stuff that you have to do as a business person, as a manager, as an accountable officer. 

For the moment, I just want to focus down on the work that's essential for your role as a leader. So, I've got six things for you to think about here. Number one, set the tone through the right values and behaviours. It's really important that you understand as a leader, the standard you walk past is the standard you set. So, you have to be crystal clear on what's okay and what's not okay. 

You have to talk about with your people and hold all your leaders in particular to account for this. For you personally, you need to be an absolute exemplar of what you're asking your people to do in terms of their behaviours and values. So as I've said many times before, you've got to eat your own dog food. Now, there are lots of ways to reward the right values and behaviours.

In my executive team, what we would do at the start of every meeting was to have a people share. In people shares, one or more of the executives would talk about someone in their organisation who had exhibited exactly the right values and behaviours that we were looking for, contributing to the high performance constructive culture we were trying to build.

This helped us to specifically set the tone for the organisation by insisting on the right values and behaviours and rewarding them when we saw they were actually present. The second point for a leader to think about is how to discover and communicate your organisation's purpose. Many organisations now try to answer the question, "Why do we exist, and for whom?"

Now years ago, the purpose of any organisation was the profit motive. That is to say, a firm exists to maximise shareholder value, and that was it. That view has long been superseded, which is probably just as well, because try using that line to inspire a millennial. 

Number three in the work of a leader, select and develop great people who can multiply your effectiveness. You need leaders throughout your organisation who'll set the same standards of behaviour and performance that you're ultimately trying to achieve yourself. To do this, you've got to be prepared to make some hard choices.

So, if you listen to episode two of the podcast series, which talks about building a high performing team, you'll realise that it doesn't happen by accident. As a general rule, you've got to look at your organisation and say the people who built the house can't actually renovate it. You're going to need some people to come in from outside with fresh ideas and with a different attitude and mindset that are going to help you drive that change forward.

Number four is to set simple, appropriate, and value-driven targets and then communicate those relentlessly. You've got to make it really clear to your organisation where you're going and what you're ultimately trying to achieve. Surprisingly, many organisations don't actually do this. You've got to challenge your organisation to achieve even higher performance standards.

As Phil Rosenzweig said in his book, The Halo Effect, there is the delusion of absolute performance. So, even if you're constantly improving in absolute terms, you may still be falling behind your competitors in relative terms. That's why it's important to keep your eye on what's going on outside. As David Yoffie from Harvard Business School says, high-performing businesses revert to the mean within seven years. So even if you do manage to build up an organisational advantage, it can be quickly routed by your competitors.

Number five, help people to understand the role that they play in the bigger picture. Now, people will absolutely give you their best if they can actually see how they contribute to the performance of the organisation. If you say it fast enough, this sounds easy. This is actually one of the Holy Grail objectives. 

Now, I mentioned in the previous episode, the psychology of your people thinking, "I'm just a cog in the wheel, and I can't really make a difference." As long as they think that, your organisation is going nowhere. Finally number six, you need to get the most out of your people through challenging, coaching, and confronting them with the intent of bringing out their best. 

This will underpin the superior results that you want from your organisation. Now I know that many of you are hesitant about challenging and confronting your people. We're going to have plenty of time in this podcast series where we talk about specifically what you can do to overcome that. Just know at this point that if your people trust you, there is absolutely nothing you can't say to them.

By trusting you, I mean that they know that you have their best interests at heart, and you're striving for the greater good. You want to make the organisation better, and you want to make every individual in it better. That's interesting, how when you ask people to be their best, they quite often surprise you.

So, that's the end of episode four. To pick up the free download, the six areas to focus your leadership energy on, go to www.yourceomentor.com/episode4. Thanks very much for joining us, and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So if you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and rate it. That way, we can reach even more leaders.

I look forward to next week's episode, where we'll explore how to use power wisely as a leader. Until then, I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.