I am sometimes asked what good leadership entails, what qualities an inspirational leader should ideally have and what I do differently in running the institution I head. There are no simple answers to these questions. In fact, I don’t think there is a right set-book answer to these questions.
Of course, there are certain universal qualities that a leader should have and which are essential in providing direction and motivating employees. A lot has been written on motivation, about the need for providing a healthy and safe work environment, and benefits that go beyond the industry standard. These are definitely very important things that a leader must, and indeed should, implement in the workplace. Management books have covered these topics quite expansively. I will therefore not dwell on these.
But there are also softer things that make all the difference in a leader, things that if implemented will trickle down to the employees in the form of motivation, encouraging them to rise over and above the call of duty. I strongly hold the view that the people we work with are the cornerstone of the business; you may have the best products, visionary strategies, elaborate five-year blueprints, the funkiest offices and the highest pay packages, but when staff members are not aligned to the vision, even the best leader will have a problem moving the organization forward.
A company is as good as its people. It follows that a leader is also as good as the people he leads, because you may have a wheel that has cogs that move counter to each other creating a nasty log jam. As leaders, we must ensure that the wheel runs smoothly, that it is well oiled and we are all pushing in the same direction.
I am constantly reminding myself of the inordinate amount of time we spend working; about a third of our lives is spent in the workplace. The other two-thirds we are either sleeping, spending quality time with family and friends or stuck in traffic jams. We might as well enjoy our time where we work.
Leaders who spend resources in making the workplace an enjoyable experience find that a happy people are a productive people. Staff members should look forward to a day in the office. They must feel a sense of purpose.
I remember reading about a certain cleaner who worked for National Aeronautical Space Agency, who, when asked what he does for a living by John F Kennedy, then the President of the United States of America, answered: “I am helping to put man on the moon.” That is one employee who has a higher purpose, perhaps even more dedicated to his job than others within the organization who may have huge titles and earn six figure salaries.
And it’s not just the physical office infrastructure I am talking about here but about the wholesomeness of the work environment. It’s also about engendering human interaction, making sure that people are pulling in the same direction and that they all share a common goal.
For me, leadership is about having your finger on the pulse of the organization that you are leading, knowing what makes the people in the organization tick, rallying the troops for a common cause and walking with them in the journey towards achieving organizational and individual goals.
It is one thing to point the troops in the direction they ought to take; it is another thing walking the talk. A good leader must constantly send the right signals to staff members, that he is there for them at all times. Walk the talk with them at all times.
Leaders also must not only make their staff motivated but they must imbue a sense of belonging, have them aligned to a common goal and make them consider a day in the office not just like any other, but make them leave the office at the end of day feeling as having contributed to ‘taking man to the moon’ as it were.
It’s not always about work however. Good leaders must encourage those working in the organization to find a work life balance: it is essential that we remember to staff members have another life outside the office. They have families and friends; fitness regimes to fulfil; community obligations to compete. That is why at KCB we provide new mothers with flexi working hours that allows them to spend more time with their babies. It’s the small things that matter.
It has been said that good leaders show their true colours during a time of crisis, when they need to marshal their troops to soldier on, even when the odds are stacked against them. The almost mythical figure, Captain Hernan Cortes famously burnt his troops’ ships during an invasion in Veracruz the in early 16th century. He left his soldiers with no option than to fight.
Perhaps that was a rather drastic measure but then, in a time of war, this was the right decision. But, that was a true leader who knows his troops and what is needed to motivate them. We need not burn our boats; but as leaders, we need to essentially know what choices we must make to keep our troops focused on the big picture.
(Oigara is the KCB Group CEO and MD)