To Be or Not to Be A Leader

May 16, 2001
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MT. PLEASANT, MI — “Leadership is the art of seeing an objective, defining it, articulating it, and influencing others to help achieve it,” stated Jim Norris, ceo of Excellence Alliance Inc. (EAI), Denver, CO, and former executive vice president of the Air Condi-tioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Washington, DC.

Norris was speaking to contractor-members of the Michigan Chapter of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (MIACCA) at the group’s annual convention, held recently at the Soaring Eagle Resort here in Mt. Pleasant.

Norris said that successful organizations are constantly seeking ways to outdo themselves every day. Change, difficulties, and stress create energy in people, and winning leaders know how to harness it for productive use. He said that successful leaders create the following five conditions:

1. A sense of urgency. Focus on the fact that there is a real problem, and that it won’t go away unless action is taken.

2. A mission worth achieving. It is not enough for people to understand that they can’t keep doing things the same old way. Help them visualize a specific future that looks a lot better.

3. Goals that stretch people’s abilities. Goals must be high enough to inspire extraordinary effort, but they can’t appear to be unreasonable or impossible or they will discourage people from reaching their top performance.

4. A spirit of teamwork. Risks seem less risky and goals seem more achievable when employees feel that they are part of a team — a team that includes the leader.

5. A realistic expectation that the team can succeed. Build confidence by making sure that all parts of the problem are being addressed so that if people do their part, the solution will work.

In addition, Norris stressed that the development of leadership skills is important to reaching the desired goals. By questioning “group think,” resetting direction, guiding cooperative action, walking the talk, and motivating others, leaders can grow and help their employees do the same.

He also recommended using the “servant-leader” approach, which makes it clear that serving others (employees, customers, and the community) is the number-one priority. Characteristics of a servant-leader include listening receptively, accepting others, and having empathy for them; foresight and intuition; awareness and perception; and highly developed powers of persuasion, building community in the workplace, and practicing the art of contemplation.



Self-Awareness

Leading people is not easy for everyone, but for those precious few for whom it is easy, it is important to learn how to harness the power and be able to project it. Those who follow will do so not because they think you are a leader, but because you think you are a leader.

One of the first things a leader must have is a high level of self-awareness. Norris explained that you may be able to sound like a leader, but if you do not truly believe you are, those sounds won’t carry very far.

Another important factor is understanding what motivates those who are followers.

Norris said that leaders need to be active listeners; “Be open to understanding not only what people do, but why they do the things they do. Remember, understanding human motivation is more of an art than a science.”



Knowledge, Flexibility

Knowledge and learning are key. One way to promote and participate in the unceasing quest for knowledge is to create learning networks. It is important, however, when creating these networks, that leaders take an active part in the process.

“Effective leaders develop and participate in ongoing knowledge networks that are not limited to technical and professional topics,” said Norris. “Surround yourself with [industry and non-industry] people who ponder a wide range of subjects, including life’s great mysteries.”

It is important that a leader be able to effectively analyze and package complex information so that others may understand the intricacies as well as the leader does, or at least feel free to ask the leader to explain it.

“If you can take a complicated issue, break it down into simple parts, and present a clear-cut strategy, then you have accomplished something few people can do,” said Norris.

The decision-making process is never an easy one, even when all the information available to a leader is sitting right in front of him/her, but it is even more important for a leader to be able to make decisions when presented with conditions of extreme ambiguity.

Norris said, “You need to be able to make a good decision even when you don’t have all the data, advice, and time you need. In other words, get off the dime! Go with your instincts!

“You and your competitors have the same dilemma,” he continued: “scarce resources that include a lack of money, technology, time, and so on. Knowing which balls to juggle — without dropping one — is critical to success.

“A well-developed personal vision, and the ability to sell it” are also key to being a successful leader. “Having a strong sense of vision is essential to your growth. It’s particularly important to the leaders in your company. Make sure you have a defined, total picture of what you want to see happen in your company, your career, and your life.”



Personal Values, Clarity

A well-developed set of personal values, he said, is key to leadership, because it shows a well-rounded nature.

“It’s not what you say that matters to your coworkers. What matters is what you are. Living by your values will speak volumes to those around you.”

According to Norris, having personal values also gives a leader a basis from which to reach out and bring in the kind of people who will make the company succeed. “You know what you want from the people you work with — they deserve the same courtesy. Understand human motivation, and listen carefully to learn what others want from you.

“No leader reached the top on his or her own,” said Norris. “Your success is due in part to the people who helped you get there. Return the favor.”



Sidebar: Ten Trends That Will Change the Way You Lead

1. Speed. Instant gratification isn’t an option — it’s an imperative. What do your customers need sooner? How is response time? How could it be improved?

2. Convenience. Customers need service on their schedules, not yours. And they won’t go through elaborate procedures to get it. How can your company be more accessible and responsive?

3. Demographics. Senior citizens, Baby Boomers, Yuppies, Gen Xers, all have different needs, tastes, and requirements. One size does not fit all. Do you know what each of your customers needs?

4. Lifestyles. Women in the workforce, longer commuting hours, longer hours at work, and shorter leisure hours all have impacted how customers value their time. Are you considerate of your customers’ lives?

5. Choices. Customers have many options when choosing service providers. Does every customer get “plain vanilla” service? Do you have the capability to customize service for specific customers?

6. Discounting. Nobody wants to pay more for service than they have to. Don’t be the “cheapest guy in town,” but be aware that most customers shop for price.

7. Value adding. Customers expect constant improvement and upgrading of products and services. Do your customers believe they receive extra value from your company?

8. Customer service. Customer service is a perception, not an absolute, but it can offset pricing differences. This is the one area where attention to detail pays off! Do you train employees on customer service skills?

9. Technology. Technology needs to be the heart and soul of your customer service efforts. How are you using technology to make your company easier to do business with?

10. Quality. Make sure everyone in your operation believes that serving the customer is a privilege, an honor that must be jealously protected through outstanding service.



Leadership Checklist

Ask yourself the following:

  • Have I made it clear what is expected in terms of results? Do I discuss results with my employees?

  • Have I let employees know where they stand?

  • Do employees know how to do the work?

  • Have I done a good job of training and development?

  • Do I give employees all the support I can?

  • What have I done to cultivate positive personal relationships?

  • Do employees know why their jobs are important, how they fit into the overall company structure, and the ramifications of poor performance?

  • Are employees kept informed on what is going on in the department and the company, not just the “need-to-know” items, but the “nice-to-know” items?

  • Do employees have adequate freedom in which to work?

  • Are employees too often put in a defensive position regarding performance?

  • What have I done to get employees mentally and emotionally involved in their jobs?

  • Have employees been allowed to participate in setting goals, and deciding means of achieving them?

  • Have good aspects of performance received adequate periodic recognition?

  • Do I accentuate the positive instead of the negative?

  • Have I shown adequate concern for employees as individuals? For their personal goals?

  • Am I flexible about listening to employees and giving them a chance to implement ideas and suggestions?

  • Have I consciously assessed employees’ strengths and weaknesses with the idea of structuring the work to capitalize on strengths?

  • Are employees adequately and reasonably challenged?

    Publication date: 06/21/2001

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