Characteristics of a successful leader

Does the President-Elect Possess the Qualities of a Global Leader?

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.

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Comments

  1. Excellent and v. relevant post Jeannette. I think the differences you cite between leadership and management are spot on. It’s so important to develop relationships in business and especially as a leader, which sadly, Trump appears unable to do, and surrounds himself with cronies. US international relations in particular are in for a very scary and rocky ride.

    • A.K. — we can only hope that he grows into the job and understands that his every word conveys a meaning. You can’t wing it as President.

  2. I am definitely a leader. I embrace change and am never afraid to embrace new ideas. Managing the minutia is a bit of a challenge for me. I truly admire visionaries like Jobs and Zuckerberg. Their ideas and vision truly did change the world.

    • Doreen — I’d definitely peg you as a leader. Just look at what you’ve accomplished as the leader in everything chocolate!

  3. It’s best I forgo commenting on the pres-elect. I agree with the points Mr. Kotter has made, in particular, his point about how visionary ideas don’t have to be complex. I’ve never studied leadership, I was too focused on finding ways to secure my independence from the hierarchy. But I do know the type of person that has always made me willing to follow their lead and they are people of honesty and integrity, willing to listen as well as share their vision, not afraid to do anything they ask others to do, and maybe most important of all, seeking to push people UP instead of putting them down. Thanks for another inspiring read Jeannette!

    • Marquita — I used to teach a management development course at my bank and our definition of a leader is someone who people follow “willingly and voluntarily.” Leaders require the characteristics you mention, at the least — and more.

  4. Believe me, having worked with world leaders most of my life I can assure you Donald Trump is not in that league. Will be interesting to see how long an authoritarian manager like him can hold on to the presidency.

  5. Great post Jeannette!

    Hmmm am I leader or a manager – I would say I am both. The key factor is no matter how many great ideas a visionary has, they need the support of others.

    I agree that the same challenges, leaders had 30/40 years ago, still exist now. Working with others in general can be rather complex. Technology certainly aids with networking and communicating like never before. You can have video conference calls with people across the world.

    I smile whenever I think of the history surrounding Mark Zuckerberg. One of his peers pulled out of the meeting he called to discuss his new idea which is now known as Facebook. He must wonder “what if” on a daily basis ……………..

    • Phoenicia — I wonder who that person was who pulled out of the meeting? A leader can’t do everything alone. S/he needs to the support of good managers. But it’s important to understand your own aptitude — are you a leader or manager? I’m a leader by nature and I’m trying to learn how to keep my hands by my sides when someone calls for volunteers because when I agree to join a committee or organization I end up running it. Been there. Done that.

      • Phoenicia — I wonder who that person was who pulled out of the meeting? A leader can’t do everything alone. S/he needs to the support of good managers. But it’s important to understand your own aptitude — are you a leader or manager? I’m a leader by nature and I’m trying to learn how to keep my hands by my sides when someone calls for volunteers because when I agree to join a committee or organization I end up running it. Been there. Done that.

  6. Jeannette liked your post!
    Thanks for sharing it, will be sharing it ahead!
    Coming to if I am a Leader or a Manager?
    I will consider myself as a Leader ‘I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday!’

    “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.”
    Lovely!

    • Sushmita — I’m glad that you’re working towards being an effective leader and I appreciate your sharing the post.

  7. I think Netflix is the epitome of a business that dealt with change. They are really a very different company than they were 10 years ago. And even though they helped put companies like Blockbuster out of business, they barely participate in the rental biz anymore. But they dealt well with change and adapted in the direction that appealed to their customers.

    Historically, I’ve been more comfortable being a manager. It felt safer and I always felt more confident dealing with the complexities of someone else’s vision. Now that I’m a bit older, I’ve found myself more and more fitting into the leader’s role, especially as someone who has my own business. It took some courage for me to get there, but I’ve also found skills I hadn’t previously known I had.

    • Erica — No doubt if you start your own business you’ve got to adopt the qualities of a leader, even if your natural tendency is to be a manager. Good for you to have the courage to make this transition.

  8. The only reason I would say I was a leader in the early days of my career is because my employees told me so. I just did what I thought was the right thing: if I hired someone into management it was with the caveat that they should want my job. So everything I taught them and held them accountable for was geared toward that end. It’s been a long time since I managed staff, so whether or not anyone would still call me a leader, I don’t know.

    In those I’ve worked for, good leaders are the ones who would say what the job was to be done and then get out of the way so we could do it–in other words a good boss hires people smarter than him/her in a specific area so that the job gets done. I’m not sure I see that in our future president.

  9. When I was an officer in the military, I often saw two styles of leadership.
    I would describe them as the SNOWPLOW, and THE ROPE styles.
    The first style (snowplow) moves ahead, clearing the way and everyone follows it. This is an authoritarian view of leadership, depending on the one in the lead to make all the decisions.
    The 2nd is the rope. A leader has a rope to those who follow. He assists them to pull themselves forward.
    When it is necessary, the leader can allow those below him, to go ahead. Always, the rope is there for safety.
    I think Donald Trump is the first option. Things are done his way, and everyone else must follow the path. In his form of leadership communication is an afterthought, and not as important as the 2nd option, which demands it for it to work.

    • William — Excellent description of two types of leader. Donald Trump definitely fits the description of authoritarian leadership. He didn’t listen to his advisors during the campaign and I don’t see him changing his personal style as President. He urgently needs to become a better communicator, crafting his messages and not just shooting off a Twitter post without giving thought to the ramifications of every word he says.

  10. Krystyna — Listening is an underutilized talent. However, it is true that Steve Jobs didn’t believe in research because he felt that Apple’s customers didn’t know what they wanted. Maybe he was right. Did you or I or anyone, for that matter, know that we “needed” a smart phone?