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Even as one of the most widely discussed topics in business, academics, and society in general, leadership seems to defy easy definition, perhaps because it is best known by its results. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the U.S., said it best: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader."
I've been on a quest to discover some of the fundamental truths about leadership. Over the past year, I have had the privilege to speak with and interview dozens of leaders around the world—people in high places, people with tough jobs, people with global roles, people with local roles—from the president of a sovereign nation to global Fortune 500 CEOs to the richest man in the world. I've thought about what they've said and I've compared their insights with what I've learned in my own life and as the CEO of a NYSE-traded company. Great leaders, at least the ones I've talked to, don't agree on everything, but they seem to agree on some things.
If there is consensus among these leaders, it is that it all comes down to listening, learning—and then leading.
To a person, each leader I spoke with emphasized the importance of the art of listening. Distinct from hearing, which is innate, listening is an acquired art—and a very strategic one at that. Listening is fact-finding and intelligence-gathering from clients, customers, stakeholders, and the employees who are on the front lines of the marketplace. The leader who will not take the time to listen has effectively closed his mind as well as his ears.
Anne Mulcahy, who recently retired as chairman of Xerox Corp. (XOX), recounted to me her experiences during the dramatic turnaround of that company, which in the early 2000s seemed headed toward bankruptcy. She met with employees personally not only to explain the company's plan, which included layoffs, but also to listen to their fears, concerns, ideas, and their desire to restore the company's profitability and reputation.
As Mulcahy illustrated, leadership is much less about the leader, and much more about the followers and the mission. It's about having individuals look into your eyes and see who you, as the leader, really are; it's about letting them see into your soul. That kind of transparency and connection starts with listening.
Leaders are always learning, and in a fragile economic environment this skill is paramount. Although the white-knuckle free fall of a year ago may be over, today's revival is tentative, and the engines of growth are not as apparent as they were in the good ol' days. For today's leaders, the search is on for new-world ideas to replace, augment, and even rehabilitate those ideas and institutions that have fallen into disfavor. Today's leaders are on high alert for new ideas and insights; they are keenly interested in the changing world around them. Some are looking to emerging markets, others are looking to innovate, and still others are seeking to merge or acquire.
Great leaders are lifelong learners, typically voracious readers with insatiable curiosity. Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist and founder of two Fortune 500 companies (KB Home (KBH) and SunAmerica) is a perfect example. He reads four newspapers a day to keep abreast of both this dynamic environment and his many interests, from urban school reform to medical and scientific research. No matter that his impressive business career has spanned more than five decades, Broad is still learning.
From listening and learning comes the foundation from which to lead. More than charisma, real leadership is about being authentic, which is a trait that endures. Leadership is also about compassion and the genuine development of the people you are leading. Leadership is never about the one who leads; it is always about the team and the organization. Leadership is about helping people feel sufficient common purpose so that they are able to achieve extraordinary things.
Leadership is stewardship of a company, its brand, and its people. The leader as steward recognizes the shared journey to create a legacy based on vision, mission, and values.
While we face fluctuating macroeconomic conditions and uncertainty and questions remain about the economy growing, stalling, or even double-dipping, it's clear to me, when it comes down to it, that an effective leader's modus operandi often remains unchanged: Listen, learn, and then lead.
Simple, perhaps, but not simplistic.