What are the most critical Leadership skills?

Lets start with the premise that the concept of the Web Year year means that what we used to do in a 12 month cycle is typically getting shorter and shorter.

Web Year Definition borrowed from the World Wide Web:
“A Web year has been said to be the length of time it takes for Internet technology to evolve as much as technology in another environment might evolve in a calendar year. The term was coined at a time when the Internet and Web technology and culture were progressing at a phenomenal rate.”

Therefore any summary of Leadership skills for the year 2015 would need to include:

1. Strong Team Building skills to meet the challenge of the ever widening gulf between where leadership is located and where our geographically dispersed teams operate from.
Leadership needs to educate themselves in various nuances of leading and managing dispersed and diverse teams:
* Cultural differences
* Language issues
* Time zone challenges
* Technology (Internet bandwidth, Networking, Technology maturity (or immaturity), Social media application, etc.
* Religion issues
* Geopolitical and sociological issues

2. Leadership needs to develop strong Technology awareness and skill sets to better adopt and deploy the current technology trends into both tactical and strategic decision making and day to day business operations
(Cloud, Big Data, Analytics, Social Media, the list goes on and on…)

3. Better understanding of key business processes that drive strategic Change and Business Transformation initiatives within the organization and beyond. Consider the plethora of challenges that arise out of most Outsourcing transactions – Leaders need to be aware of and have a strong grasp over critical process checks and controls that anticipate and call out in advance, potential gaps that may become apparent during the implementation of complex business transactions (such as Outsourcing Transactions)

4. Behave with Honesty and integrity always (not new or different for 2015 alone – this is a constant leadership requirement)

5. Anticipate where the Technology trends are driving the market and the Organization structure and ensure that the Team’s composition, skills and knowledge base are consistently and constantly being upgraded and honed to ensure better predictability and success in the market place.

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What do I believe is the most important skill for a Leader to possess?

Vicious, relentless, curiosity and the ability to ask Why and Why not with equal relevance and tenacity.
This is a somewhat obtuse approach to innovation that I have observed several of the most innovative leaders I have worked with demonstrate.

The questions Why and Why not are probably the most daunting challenge a leader can ever throw down to a team. The reason is regardless of how you respond to the Why question…rest assured you are going to have to deal with the imminent and predictable follow on question of Why not?

Using these simple questions I have observed some of the best ideas and innovations come to life…be they challenges to specific rules  and governance that dictated actions within a team or  an individual, to the way processes had been designed such that they had become cast in stone, or through confronting the inevitable statement…”that’s the way we have always done it around here.”

Innovative leaders don’t have to make that next big speech on “Innovate or die”..they simply get on with it and ask a lot of Why and Why not questions…Innovation just seems to follow…

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I have  notion that Leadership skills or requirements do not change – regardless of whether the year is 2015 or 2525 (at least the core skills and requirements do not change).

My top three:

1. Strong communication skills. I cannot underscore this point enough. There seems to be a lot of focus on Financial skills, Technical skills, Team building skills, etc,. – and they all have a place in the Leader’s arsenal…however my first  skill choice has always been Communication.
Why Communication?
Because it is the underpinning of all great decision making, problem solving, brainstorming, and creative thinking.
The level of communication skill I am talking about is the innate ability to simplify complex information and communicate it such that it is clearly understood and embraced in the ‘trenches’ as well as in the higher echelons of the Organization.

2. Trustworthiness: This means the ability to demonstrate by example that he/she can be trusted (or is ‘worthy of our trust’).
This is no easy feat, given the various levels of decision making, change, transformation, ‘rightsizing’ or cost cutting that the Leader typically not only needs to deal with, but indeed orchestrate and actually implement for the most part. All of which impact the human resources within the organization the most. The great Leaders are able to win us over through their actions and deeds…not just through words….because their actions always speak louder than their words!

3. The ability to keep it simple: I have worked with several Leaders over the past 40 or so years and the thing that I found most of them have in common, is their propensity to keep things real simple.
Whether this was a communication that they are sending out organization-wide to announce a change, or an address to the Shareholders, or in the simple act of looking at a mass of complex information and being able to distill it down to a pattern or simple, achievable tasks/actions.
This may sound uncharacteristic of a great Leadership skill – I mean what about those great ‘guts and glory’ oratory feats (think Churchill or even Hitler), or the incredible technical jousting that often goes on in our Tech centric environments these days…sure they have their place, however I would suggest that the most difficult task is not creating something that is intrinsically complex and difficult to comprehend…but in fact taking something intrinsically complex and difficult to comprehend…and rendering it truly simple.

And that my friends is what great Leaders are able to do!

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For 2015…and any other year really, successful Leadership will embrace the following skills:

1. A passion for Technology evolution – Social Media, Cloud, Big Data, Analytics, to name a few. Technology has been shaping our lives in dramatic and often unsettling ways – this is similar to the ‘Future Shock’ as defined by Alan Toffler’s groundbreaking book of the same name – here is a paraphrase of his definition of Future Shock: The shock and disorientation that occurs when people are faced with to much change…too soon.
Embrace the technology before it overwhelms and crushes you.

2. Storytelling: People love stories. Teams and organizations are no different – they all enjoy a great story and the great and successful leaders are all naturals when it comes to telling a story.
Why is this important – there is a glut of information that is passed on to the teams and staff within any Organization these days. On a typical day, we are inundated with upwards of 100 emails or more – leave aside the other communications that come in text messages, phone calls and water cooler chats. So when Leadership has something important to say, it better not be lost in the datamatic noise out there already, and what better medium to create differentiation than through the medium of a great story.

3. Being a champion for your Team: Be a Champion for the people who form the team and for the managers who lead and nurture your team on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.
Be honest and upfront with the information that impacts them the most. Seek out ways to stay connected at some sort of cadence – whether it is a bi-weekly ‘view from the top’ briefing, or whether it is a monthly ‘walkabout’ of different locations where you have an opportunity to meet and greet with your teams upfront and personal.

The Leadership role necessarily brings with it a certain aura – you can determine how you would like that aura to come across to your team. As esoteric as this may sound, we have all felt our leader’s presence from time to time, even while separated by time and space. I still distinctly remember a leader once chiding me when I suggested we could win some business if we worked through a business partner…and he softly but very firmly re- affirmed: “Let’s understand that we only engage in business that allows our Customers, Vendors and Ourselves to sleep easy every night.”

Amen to that I say…and best of luck!

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The ability to engage in consistent Physical Fitness Activity.

I have always been a proponent of the argument that it takes almost superhuman strength and stamina to survive the Leadership Marathon today’s Leaders are required to participate in. And the fact is this marathon does not let up after 26 miles…it is there for the duration. Therefore Leaders hopes to survive and indeed thrive in this physically and mentally challenging ‘Olympiad,’ they better look to get in shape.

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with some of the best Leaders in the business, and all of them demonstrated some common traits:

# Most slept less than 4 hours  every night
# Most traveled 20 days (or more) every month – to domestic and International
destinations
# Most were voracious readers: 2/3 newspapers a day, 3/4 business magazines or
books each month
# Most had extremely disciplined eating and drinking habits
# Most were first in, last out each day at the office

# ALL HAD EXTREMELY HIGH ENERGY LEVELS!!!

So how did these leaders achieve all of the above and then some?
I have learned over time that most of the successful and high impact Leaders are extremely fit individuals, with a consistent exercise and diet regimen, and a proactive approach to their own health and well-being. They are prompt with their physical/medical check-ups, they are usually active members of a gym or Health club, they usually participate in some physical sport or other (hiking, jogging, Tennis, Squash, Golf, to name a few)
Some of them are committed Marathon Runners who participate in global events (I have worked for a CEO who was a passionate Marathon runner, and who left such an impression on me that I have been an avid jogger ever since – going on 15 years now).

So what does this mean to leadership in the 2105 and beyond…If you are in the Leadership race for the long haul, it’s time to get fit – or at the very least consider the following Three key actions:

1. Get your Medical/Physical check-up competed with your Physician (if not done already)
2. Develop your Fitness Goals and Milestones (for the next 3-6-12 month)
3. Join a Gym or engage a Personal Trainer/Dietician

Then go ahead and knock it out of the Park!

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Leaders need to be Process Driven…perhaps more now than ever before!

# Understanding of the key processes that drive the Organization
# Understanding where the pain points and bottlenecks occur
# Assembling a team of Lean, Process design experts to oversee organizational processes
# Rewarding teams who are able to eliminate waste and rework
# Developing relationships with similar peer organizations to allow for mutual competitive Benchmarking
# Developing Organization-wide Quality awareness and accountability for continuous improvement
# Creating awareness for the cost of not doing things right the first time (the cost of rework and poor quality)

The year 2015 and beyond is no magic marker or milestone in Corporate thinking and learning…but it could certainly be a great place to start listening to the wake-up calls we have been receiving for the past decade now…that only the organizations that can keep cost down while continuously raising the quality bar are going to survive.
The sooner Leadership gets the memo…the better for all!

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My Top Skill for Leaders in 201 would continue to be Effective Communication. Why the prefix ‘Effective’ you may ask?

Let me elaborate:

I believe we are all born with an innate ability to communicate – with or without any formal training to do so. Sure enough, School, College and University provide us the sandbox to hone these skills further, but the truth is we would still be capable of communication, if we dropped out of school or College or University and never had any formal training at all.

But here I am not referring  to ‘Communication’ per se. I am more making the case for what I will refer to as the Three Fundamental Building Blocks for Truly Effective Communication:

1. Sincerity: Communication is effective to the degree we are able to stay truthful and transparent in all our communication efforts. The moment we stray from this simple precept, we are wandering into the sort of ‘communication ‘no man’s land’  – that minefield of lost trust, misinterpretation, dishonest commitment and ambiguous motivation.

2. Listening – Truly listening from the heart or empathetic listening: There is a saying that Sympathy is ‘feeling for someone’ whereas Empathy is ‘feeling as someone.’
In a similar vein, ‘Empathetic listening’ is the desire to truly listen and empathize with what the individual we are conversing with is trying to say. We sometimes call this ‘Active Listening’ however I prefer the term ‘Empathetic’ because it creates a more deeper connotation for me. I believe we listen best when we keep our hearts and minds completely open to receive what the individual we are conversing with is saying.
Why is this important? For the same reason we differentiated between the words  Sympathy and Empathy. If you see a man drowning, and choose to throw him a lifebelt, that is sympathy. if you dive right into the water and become as that person who is drowning…then that is true empathy.

3. Clarity: Communication generally flows with a natural cadence and there are unpremeditated pauses, silences, and sometimes, heightened moments of argument and anger, with equally opposite reactions of laughter, humour and sometimes, sadness and sorrow. All of these emotions that become an intrinsic part of our communications have a tendency to also trigger some uncertainty or lack of clarity within the context of the conversation or communication itself.
it is key that we become familiar with a few skills in order to ensure we are clearly understanding what we are hearing, and that we are communicating with clarity and conciseness, such that the individual we are in communication with is receiving the information clearly and without any misinterpretation.
Clarifying is the behaviour we use to ask questions to ensure we are understanding, or if our fellow communicator has understood what we are saying.
Testing Understanding (often phrased in the exact same manner as in “let me test my understanding to make sure I’ve got it right”) is another clarifying behaviour that we can add to the arsenal.
When we seek more information (details) or give more information (provide more details) we are using yet another set of clarifying behaviours in our communication process.

It is key to effective communication that we follow the 3 building blocks for Effective Communication identified above – this is an imperative skillset for leadership not just in 2015…but in the beyond as well!

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To clarify some of the comments to what I have been writing here – I believe the subject is about Skills and not educational qualifications?
I agree specific and related educational qualifications must be a given for any discussion on Leadership qualifications, however for this thread, we are talking about skills so lets not confuse the subject.
That said, I am not big on putting too much emphasis behind educational qualifications alone – I have seen my share of highly qualified individuals flounder and stall when placed in positions of leadership…so educational qualifications alone will not hack it either.

Conversely, individuals with leadership drive will lead…and the fact that they may have dropped out of High School or College doesn’t seem to make any difference – here are a few notable drop-outs:
Ellen DeGeneres
Mark Zuckerberg
Ted Turner
Steve Jobs
Bill Gates
Al Pacino
Oprah Winfrey
John Lennon
Walt Disney
Coco Chanel

The thing that’s fascinating to me about the above list is that arguably, most of them are from the Americas…which seems to underscore another critical fact already highlighted by Michael Porter: “National prosperity is created, not inherited.”
So it would appear to me that in the Americas, a significant competitive advantage is the spirit of entrepreneurship, the belief that one can succeed with hard work and passion, even if one is not as qualified as perhaps defined by societal norms and  standards.
Therefore in the U.S, by nurturing this entrepreneurship…this passion for being innovative, courageous and creative, would appear to have created a significant opportunity for yet another National Competitive Advantage.

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Fearlessness!

The kind of fearlessness that prevails in all great leaders. The absolute calm and composure that they are able to bring to the most daunting situations conceivable.

I had my own personal ‘aha’ moment on the concept of fearlessness during the time the events of 9/11 occurred. Watching spellbound, the numerous Television plays and replays of the Twin Towers coming down…and the incredible examples of  Fearlessness and Leadership that unfolded  as we watched those dauntless First Response teams literally and fearlessly – stay calm and composed, evaluate the situation as the Twin Towers were literally collapsing around them, and then take the fateful decision to keep moving upwards via the stairwells that were burning infernos already and completely treacherous to navigate, in order to save what lives they believed/knew to be desperately waiting and praying for their arrival.

I do not believe any single one of those First Responder teams entertained any hopes of making it out of there alive themselves, but they remained fearless in the face of adversity…and soldiered on up towards what was almost certain death.

This was my paradigm shift – I realized then that all the sound-bites they teach us at Business School about Leadership…just does not do it when it comes down to the harsh white lights of reality…Real Leadership…regardless how elevated or how insignificantly positioned within the Organizational hierarchical construct…is almost always endowed with this one single quality…Fearlessness!

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I believe that all great leader possess is the ability to tell great stories. Can you think of any of the greatest leadership achievements known to man…that did not start out with a great story from the individual chosen to lead…or simply that individual who took on the leadership mantle and influenced and others to follow notwithstanding:
1. Great Discoveries
2. Great Inventions
3. Great scientific breakthroughs
4. Great Sporting/Athletic upsets.
5. Great (Military) Conquests
All the above would have started with an eloquent story the leader told and repeated over time…until the idea became one with every single individual on the team, until the desire to realize that story…that dream…that vision, became the single, inexorable force directing, propelling and channelizing every iota of energy from the individuals/teams towards a single, common, goal – and isn’t that what great leadership is all about….facilitating teams to achieve the Organization’s goals.

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