The dictionary definition is somewhat vague—“the action of leading a group of people or an organization” or “the office or position of a leader.” But the water cooler definition of leadership is more action-oriented—“someone who gets things done,” or “the guy who runs the company” or “the person who sets the company mission and gets people to fulfill it.”
It may be hard to define leadership, but many people say they can identify a leader when they see one.
The requirements to be a successful leader seem to be ratcheting up with a strong focus on speedy, measurable results. Corporate CEOs are expected to increase profits and move the stock price up quickly.
“Leaders in the nonprofit sector often put a greater premium on advocacy skills and leading with authenticity, because one’s success is most likely measured based on whether a social issue gets sufficient traction,” says Denise Gray-Felder, chief communication officer for the University of Michigan Health System, recently renamed Michigan Medicine.
And leaders, especially of larger or high-profile organizations, are under increasing scrutiny for their behavior, including possible conflicts of interest, improper use of organizational funds and insensitive or illegal interactions with other employees. In recent months, dozens of well-known corporate executives and high-profile figures have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse of female employees and colleagues. Such inappropriate behavior is costly to an organization’s reputation and, potentially, its bottom line, since settling complaints or defending lawsuits is expensive. Those who allege harassment or abuse may be criticized by others in the organization, adding to the negative impact of sexual harassment on them.
Leaders are expected to be exemplary, although that may be unrealistic.
“Leaders are no more flawed than anyone else. We’ve all done bad things in our lives,” says Ari Weinzweig, founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, 10 award-winning food-related ventures in Ann Arbor. He writes and speaks frequently about leadership. (See sidebar about Developing Leadership Skills.)
An Evolving Idea of Leadership
Weinzweig, along with several executive coaches and executive recruiters, agrees that the concept of leadership has evolved from the top down authority model.
“The brilliant leader who has all the answers is still there, but now there is a greater focus on the idea that everybody in the organization has something to offer. Self-awareness and collaboration are increasingly recognized,” he says.
Kathleen Zimmerman-Oster, a psychologist and professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, also views contemporary leadership as less hierarchical. “Leadership isn’t as positional,” she says. “You can exhibit leadership without a title. All of us have the capacity to lead. It’s about having an idea and being passionate.” The University of Detroit Mercy offers a very popular minor in leadership.
Great leaders are “inspiring and motivating. They lead by example and are selfless,” says Barbara Rapaport, an executive coach and corporate leadership development expert for 30 years. Her firm, Real-time Perspectives, is based in Grand Rapids and she facilitates the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Leadership Advantage program that helps executives enhance their leadership skills. Rapaport cites Michelle Obama for her leadership. “She took her role and found a way to connect with people.”
Executive recruiter Todd Hohauser speaks of the need for leaders to have emotional intelligence. “A good leader fosters creativity, innovation and is someone people look up to. You have to have the ability to communicate with people at all levels. Technical skills aren’t enough,” explains Hohauser, CEO of Troy, Mich.-based Harvey Hohauser & Associates.
According to executive coach Barry Demp, people are looking at their lives more holistically. “Leading your own life at work is only one of those domains. It’s not just about climbing the corporate ladder. Is the ladder attached to the right wall?”
Weinzweig concurs. “What you need to lead a great life is what you need to lead a great business.”
Relationship Skills Are Key
Zimmerman-Oster and Demp speak of the need for a leader to have emotional intelligence.
“People are more relationship-oriented and it’s important to be able to share different points of view harmoniously. It starts with the leader who has to walk the talk.
The days of yelling and screaming are still there, but there is less tolerance for them,” Zimmerman-Oster says.
According to Demp, leaders need to be able to engage and produce results with other people. “Multi-generational workplaces require very nuanced leadership. Command and control style doesn’t work,” he says. “The qualities of emotional intelligence and soft skills couldn’t be more important today.”
Hohauser says that organizations are seeking leaders who understand millennials—how to recruit and sell to them. “They want work-life balance. The millennial doesn’t necessarily want to climb the corporate ladder. The 25 to 35-year-olds have a different means of communicating and corporate leadership is trying to crack the code,” he says.
“The number one reason people leave a job is the boss. Technical skills aren’t enough,” Hohauser says.
“There is task behavior and relationship behavior,” says Zimmerman-Oster. “Products aren’t the only focus; so is customer service and helping the world.”
Zimmerman-Oster and Weinzweig speak of the servant leadership model initiated by Robert Greenleaf, who states that “we as leaders are here first and foremost to serve our organizations.”
Weinzweig wants everyone at Zingerman’s to act like a leader and owner of the business. To support this, the company has an “open book” policy, in which its financial records are available to employees, who are also offered ownership opportunities. He views organizational culture as “the soil. The quality of soil will have a huge impact on what’s planted—new ideas or new people in the organization.”
Developing Leadership Skills
Experts agree that leadership skills can be developed and enhanced. “It requires study, practice, making mistakes—the same as for any other skills. People learn in different ways,” says Weinzweig.
Demp says that partnering with a coach can bring about stretching and evolving over time. “Coaching is a $2 billion industry. Seventy to seventy-five percent of Fortune 500 companies use coaches and there is a spectrum of coaching approaches. Coaching helps people achieve more than they could on their own,” he explains. Sessions are usually held weekly over a six-month period.
“You can learn the skills, but you need to change the mindset, transforming their beliefs. In the U.S., it’s important that an authentic voice is being heard,” says Barbara Rapaport. That concept doesn’t work so well in Asian countries, she says, as younger leaders are uncomfortable speaking up to older executives, whom they are taught to respect.
Leadership requirements may vary depending on the nature and status of the organization. “A startup takes a different kind of leader than expanding a company from $20 million in annual revenues to the next level,” says Hohauser.
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Leadership Advantage program provides leadership training through classes of 14 executives who seek to move to a higher level of leadership within their organization. The Chamber’s Talent Development Program Coordinator, Ashlie Johnson, describes their approach as very experiential, with individuals from diverse industries.
“We ask ‘What does my leadership look like? What is my next level? What are the barriers?’ If people aren’t strong, they can’t lead other people to a position of strength,” she explains. At the water cooler, the concept of a strong leader seems likely to draw nods of approval.