The quest towards identifying universally applicable principles for leadership continues. Like other social sciences, models of business and leadership are contingent on many assumptions. There are few actual laws of business. A definition I like is that leadership is the intentional influence of others towards an outcome within a defined group or organisation.
One thing is clear, leadership is not a superior virtue to followership but a phenomenon of organisation. It also doesn’t follow that just because you are a good moral leader, that others will follow.
Leaders, or at least leadership teams, also need to have a balance of transformational and transactional leadership skills. A charismatic leader may be transformational and have others lining up to follow but It is no good having a great vision if you don’t have the money, resources and systems to realise success.
Different leadership approaches can be necessary depending upon the nature of the business and its current situation. Compass operates like a business but we also have a social mission. Ultimately our actions are for the benefit of tenants and communities rather than shareholders or simple wealth creation.
Despite the difficulties with definitions and assumptions, here are four leadership principles that my team and I have followed in successfully taking Compass Housing to where it is today. They should have resonance for most businesses and organisations.
- Vision and purpose
If you want people to follow you somewhere you need to tell them what success looks like. You must set out your vision, mission and purpose and continually bring decisions and staff actions to those goals. The vision must be relevant, real, inspiring and accommodating. It doesn’t have to be an essay either. Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the movie Braveheart unites his followers with one word in his role – FREEDOM.
One of the most valuable and important pieces of advice management guru Peter Drucker enounced was culture eats strategy for breakfast. The reason is that there will always be plenty of forces working against your vision and your strategy. The right culture will ensure constancy and consistency, particularly during darker times.
Setting and maintaining the culture is a fundamental responsibility of leaders. Culture is about the values, priorities and style of working in an organisation. It takes work and not just when the darker times hit. There will always be an organisational culture but not one that you necessarily want unless you have your hands on the wheel at all times. One of the best ways leaders can maintain the right culture is to continually demonstrate it and ensure staff do the same.
- Targets but strategic opportunities
One day a young Army Reservist was telling me about the patrol and perimeter principle he had learned on exercise. Basically the principle is that unless you actively engage your enemy (competitors) outside the perimeter (your current operations) you will use your perimeter. It is a principle that applies well to business. The recent example of the disruption of traditional retail by online shopping is a good one.
My point is that it is very important to have well defined vision, culture, strategy and targets but as a leader you also need to be prepared to (and I would argue be keen to) break the status quo. Apple Founder, Steve Jobs once said those who are crazy enough to think that they are the ones who can change the world, are the ones who do.
You must also have an allowance for strategic opportunism and convince Boards of the importance of it. As a leader you must present you and your organisation as a candidate for opportunity. I’ve always loved this quote from Sir Richard Branson. “If someone offer you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”
Compass is applying strategic opportunism in its expansion internationally into community development work. We have invested resources into greater advocacy for affordable housing and sustainable communities. This has included work with the United Nations’ Habitat Committee as well as with the Federal Government, academics and civil society organsiations as we push for greater Federal Government oversight of the housing sector and the creation of a national housing plan. We’ve recently helped rebuild two community hubs in Vanuatu that were devastated by Cyclone Pam. Our tenants contributed to that program too, which has enormous value.
We don’t know exactly where our international foray will take us but that is OK. This international work aligns with our expertise in creating hubs and supporting the development of community among our tenants as well as in the Deep Place methodology we are able to use in helping to create more sustainable communities, beyond housing. As a leader, my job is to be there to support and sometimes pacify the team as we take a bit of a leap into the unknown. Reminding them that what we are doing is actually within our comfort zone.
- Processes and systems
The final leadership principle fits in with what I was describing earlier about transactional abilities of leaders.
A sporting team doesn’t perform so well if there is no understood plan or way to take the ball up. They won’t be scoring many goals or trys if the leader is doing or approving all the work or is so far ahead of the pack she or he has no one to pass to. Good systems and processes make an organisation more productive and a leader’s job easier. There’s more time to work on the business.
Finally, leadership isn’t a set and forget exercise. It requires continual learning, reflection and adaptation. You don’t always have full control and nor should you. You need to bring people with you with plenty of massaging and socialising along the way. While you are doing all of that, most importantly, make sure you are having fun along the way.