The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States has many people thinking, and even obsessing, about the qualities required to be the leader of the free world.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked for good and bad leaders. I’ll open with what I consider a leader’s primary duty – to communicate his or her vision for the organization.
Some experts would say this is the second step in being a leader; first comes the vision. But without communications across, up, down and outside the organization, a leader’s vision will never be realized. Above all, a leader needs to be communicating a clear and consistent message.
What Leaders Really Do
John Kotter is perhaps the most articulate and brilliant theorist about what makes for leadership in an organization. He says it better than I can, so I’m going to reference his ideas here.
Then, later in this post, we’ll see how his theories apply to three successful leaders, or visionaries — Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook; the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple; and Reed Hastings, the chief executive and co-founder of Netflix — and extrapolate how they might apply to President-elect Donald Trump.
Kotter, a retired professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, has written many books and articles. An article he wrote for the May/June 1990 issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled “What Leaders Really Do” was later published as a book.
His vision of a leader could have been written yesterday, even though in 1990 most companies were just beginning to adapt to the Internet and most still didn’t have websites (my own agency had one computer that could send and receive emails and it usually didn’t work).
No Twitter for President-elect Trump to use, no Facebook, and no internal networks. In other words, hardly any electronic connectivity. Yet leaders today face the same challenges as those back in ancient times (ca. 1990).
The Difference Between Management and Leadership
Kotter clearly delineated the difference between management and leadership, which are both crucial roles in the success of a company — and a country.
Leadership is about coping with change
Management is about coping with complexity
To quote Kotter, “These different functions – coping with complexity and coping with change – shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership. Each system of action involves deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda, (my emphasis) and then trying to ensure those people actually do the job.”
Isn’t that what social networking is all about today? Forming networks and communities that share common interests and goals? For President-elect Trump, isn’t that about working collaboratively with Congress and government agencies that will carry out his vision for the country? Isn’t leadership about developing relationships with other world leaders?
Kotter says that leaders seek relationships and linkages that help explain things. Leaders need to be visionaries. Most discussions of vision have a tendency to generate into the mystical, “but people who articulate such visions aren’t magicians but broad-based strategic thinkers who are willing to take risks,” he says.
Visions With Mundane Qualities
Kotter makes the point that many visions and strategies are not brilliantly innovative. Many are mundane, but “what’s crucial about a vision is not its originality but how well it serves the interests of important constituencies – customers, stockholders, employees – and how easily it can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy.”
That explains why so many people think that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are geniuses. They were visionaries who changed the world, when you think about it.
Zuckerberg took a simple idea: college students wanting to bond with each other. Getting together in the local hangout wasn’t enough. They sought a common meeting ground where they could interact 24/7.
So in 2004, as a Harvard undergraduate, he launched Facebook in what amounted to a revolution in communication – it all comes back to communication – and the social network has attracted an astounding 1.79 billion active monthly users.
Zuckerberg envisioned the possibilities. He understood how to make the linkages to help people create networks of friends.
Steve Jobs capitalized on a simple idea. Bring the Internet to your mobile phone. Not very imaginary. The technology was already there but he had the vision to harness the pieces and figure out how to make it work. He encouraged thousands of people to create iPhone apps that users can download to meet their particular needs.
Transforming a Business With Snail Mail
Reed Hastings, the chief executive and co-founder of Netflix had a simple idea to offer a subscription service for customers to rent movies by mail. Hardly an earth-shattering idea, but nobody else was doing it. As my former agency’s creative director used to say, “there are no big ideas, or small ideas, only powerful ideas.”
The service took off – remember Kotter saying not originality but serving consumer interests was key — and now Netflix has moved beyond snail mail to become the biggest source of streaming web traffic in North America during peak evening hours.
To quote Hastings, “If the Starbucks secret is a smile when you get your latte…ours is that the website adapts to the individual’s taste.”
Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, quoted in the New York Times, notes, “Netflix used an open-source network, the U.S. Postal Service, to launch an alternate distribution business without asking anyone for permission…now they are using another open-source network, the Internet, to transform the business.”
Here’s the thing – nothing has really changed in the definition of leadership in the past 20, or 30 or more years. Ideas about how to make something bigger, stronger, better, faster so it serves your community is still the currency of leadership.
This is Mr. Trump’s challenge as he takes on the most demanding leadership role in the world: to clearly articulate his vision and to surround himself with the most competent managers to execute it.
How about you? Are you a leader or a manager? Most people think it’s cooler to be a leader, but it’s the managers who make the leader’s vision a success.
A version of this post originally appeared on the website of Bea Fields Companies. With the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States it seemed timely to update it and revisit what it takes to be a successful leader.