What Makes A Leader: 4 Things Every Leader Does

robertvipperman Human Resources, Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Operations Leave a Comment

True leaders don’t talk about leadership. They demonstrate it. Here are four ways how.

By Robert Vipperman

Editor’s Note: Leadership is different to everyone. Forefront set out to learn what are network thinks a leader is by asking them “What makes a leader?” Here is one of our responses from the series, first published on the Forefront Magazine blog.

DSC_0029Leadership should be defined by action. The motto of the gym where my 16 year-old son and I study mixed martial arts is, “opera non verba,” meaning “deeds, not words.” This strikes me as a good motto for the core of real leadership.

Leaders Drive Change

Maintaining any current position or course of action doesn’t require leadership. That requires basic stewardship and simple maintenance.

With that said, it’s fascinating just how many senior managers in corporations fail to lead. The test of this capability can be so basic: What have you and your teams introduced that is new, different and helps drive the business?

But we’ve all been in meetings with very senior players whose areas have failed to introduce any incremental progress in years. When they are referred to as leaders, it always strikes me as strange.

Leaders Actively Confront Resistance

Here we have the natural outgrowth of driving change. Resistance, both overt and covert, is an inevitable side growth of progress. When you introduce something new or ask people around you to behave in a different way, they will reflexively dig in—even if the changes proposed are in their long-term best interest.

Leaders deal with resistance quickly and directly. They first try to understand the source of the resistance, then help the resistant parties see the value of the change at hand. But if soft approaches fail to sway their audience, resistors to strategic change need to be removed for the good of the company and the culture.

I’m not saying that disagreements aren’t natural and in many cases healthy. Vigorous debate is a good thing.  I’m referencing fundamental resistance to a key strategic direction set for the benefit of the company. That should be excised like a disease.

Leaders Confront Hard Truths

This is one where even the best leaders struggle. As humans, we tend to gravitate toward the path of least resistance. It’s easy to gloss over difficult issues, troubling personalities and dysfunctional dynamics. Fixing real problems is time consuming and takes effort.

I was once in a senior team staff meeting where there was a fundamental disagreement between the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and his entire management team on a core strategic issue, a pricing strategy versus an online competitor. The CEO wanted to price match a bigger and more efficient competitor. The entire room knew it would burn the profit model to the ground. It’s painful to recall that we sat through most of the day before anyone was willing to challenge that misguided premise with any real force or conviction. Lesson learned.

Leaders Manage Behavior

Here’s one that seems woefully unexplored, both in business schools and in current management thinking. In the end, leaders must manage the behavior of the people around them.

Leaders need to clearly communicate what good behavior looks like, what bad behavior looks like and the consequences on both sides.

I had an old mentor say that leadership was uncomfortably close to parenting. Hearing this as a single guy at age 30, this didn’t fully resonate. It does now.

The active management of behavior is particularly relevant to the leadership of senior teams. Top-level players often have big egos, and they tend to exhibit a set of behaviors that can negatively impact a broader organization (i.e., the constant search for turf, self-focus, undermining peers). A good senior leader confronts these behaviors in the moment, sometimes forcefully and sometimes gently. This ongoing reinforcement of the good and discouragement of the bad helps keep teams and organizations more functional.

So, just a few thoughts on leadership, made manifest via action. Best of luck to all on our shared journey to becoming better leaders. Opera non verba.


Robert Vipperman is Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Innovation at Alex Lee Inc. He was featured in Issue No. 5 of Forefront. 

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