What it Takes to be a Corporate Leader
“Come to the edge.’ ‘We can’t. We’re afraid.’ ‘Come to the edge.’ ‘We can’t. We will fall!’ ‘Come to the edge.’ And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew.”
This is a succinct exemplification of a very basic concept – that a leader’s main job is to inspire greatness in others so that they will perform to their full potential. In order to do so, leaders must possess certain traits which inspire others. Though there are a myriad of qualities that people have written and talked about, I will discuss the four key talents listed by Goffee and Jones1 that help corporate leaders to achieve spectacular results: approachability, intuition, tough empathy and uniqueness.
Approachability connects people and increases learning. Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, is known for his personable style and down-to-earth attitude. While at Southwest, he encouraged people to communicate with each other in a pleasant manner and his ability to make light of difficult situations evolved into a corporate culture that people loved. As a result of continued dedication to their jobs and loyalty to their company, Southwest Airlines employees propelled the organization to the top five “Most Admired Companies of America”, a position it retained for many years. Leaders who allow two-way communication, help others to learn in the process since they serve as mentors and enable others to climb the ladder of success quickly. When people learn new ways of achieving results, they are able to accomplish more by meeting challenges with confidence.
The second quality mentioned by Goffee and Jones, a strong intuition, enables quick decision making which is critical in the business world. Since most decisions must be made by connecting the dots well, many people falter because they lack the ability to visualize trends and forecast. A leader, because of strong domain knowledge, can analyze the facts easily and use intuition to arrive at a good decision. When Lee Iacocca was at Ford, he had a challenge to introduce a car which would appeal to a large audience. After reviewing market data and talking to people, he realized that the best way to launch a profitable car was to give customers the choice to add features as they chose. His intuition and confidence made people believe in his dream and in 1964, Ford launched the Mustang which was an instant success because it offered options based on customer demands. In the first 18 months a million Mustangs were built—far surpassing the sales forecast of fewer than 100,000 cars for the first year.
Good corporate leaders also use tough empathy to help employees achieve the required performance level. Since they are passionate about the work done in the organization, they use candid feedback to reinforce behaviors that determine success. Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE implemented the 20-70-10 performance appraisal system, which divided employees into groups based on their performance as excellent, average and poor. This encouraged a culture of excellence because through timely feedback employees were able to improve their performance. With Jack Welch as the CEO, GE’s share price rose 4000%; it was considered to be one of the most valuable companies during his tenure.
Finally, true leaders are not afraid of being different. In fact, they use their unique abilities to create value in their work. Steve Jobs, ex-CEO of Apple, showed the world that his love for calligraphy and simple design could be translated into computer fonts and a host of technological products that have become indispensable. His team shared his enthusiasm and Apple developed products that were different and exciting. With Steve Jobs at the helm from 1997-2011, Apple bounced back from a dismal performance in previous years. By 2010, Apple’s market capitalization had surpassed that of Microsoft, and its shares had hit an all-time high of $300 per share (The current share price is $542 per share).
In the final analysis, approachability, intuition, tough empathy and uniqueness are essential for corporate leaders to rally the workforce around a common goal. Even though other traits such as vision and strategic direction are very important, the qualities of a good leader discussed in this article actually endear employees to their superiors. When leaders have such loyal followers, they can instill in them a desire to perform at their peak, and by taking on challenges and opportunities with eagerness and confidence, the entire team can prove that the sky indeed is the limit!
1 Goffee, Robert and Jones, Gareth, Why Should Anyone be Led by You (Harvard Business Review: Sep/Oct2000 Vol. 78 Issue 5) 62-70.