One of the traits of a great leader is that they are forward thinking. A manager is focused on today’s tasks and directing people to complete them. A leader, on the other hand, focuses most of their attention on the future of the organization and the people around them. Through the relationship with their people, the leader is confident that today’s tasks are managed by those who will actually perform them.
With this focus on the future, leaders influence, inspire, and challenge the people around them. This practice of challenging is not an adversarial relationship, but rather it is driven by the desire to maximize the potential of their people. This desire encompasses both a combination of goals for the organization and an altruistic desire to help people grow and become all that they are capable of being.
Not satisfied with the status quo, leaders challenge by seeking to remove constraints and change mindsets. They look for innovative ways to alter processes that will improve operating practices. They are willing to take risks and contest conventional thinking. With a mindset that sees setbacks or disappointments as learning opportunities, leaders help their people to think deeper, to take greater ownership, and to grow.
Part of this practice of challenging is to develop a shared vision for the future of the organization or a particular team and to inspire the team members to achieve that vision. So that all team members buy in and collaborate for the achievement of the vision, it is important that they participate in its actual development. The team then becomes self-motivated and self-managing.
Leaders have the ability to see the inner (an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses), the other (an understanding of the capabilities and potential of the people around them), and the outer focus. With this outer focus, leaders scan such elements as technologies, processes, and potential relationships and evaluate their potential for improving their own organization. They are continually assessing what they observe and asking how it may affect the current or future position of the business. Leaders are continually evaluating and asking questions like, “What is the greatest constraint on our business or productivity and what are some ways to remove and reduce those constraints?” Rather than saying “that is how we’ve always done it”, a leader asks “why do we do it like that and is there a better way?”
In interacting with their people, leaders connect in ways that promote growth and progress. For example, rather than responding to a question with a quick answer, a leader most often will respond with a deeper question. By doing so, the leader demonstrates respect for the other person, promotes the development of the thinking process, and expands the thinking that goes into decision making.
Similarly, when interacting with people, the leader’s focus is not on the problem but on the solution. For example, rather than asking what went wrong in a particular sales effort, the leader instead asks what was learned that will help in the next sales presentation.” Focusing on what went wrong programs our brains around the problem while focusing on what we learned and will do differently the next time begins to build new thought processes for the future. Leaders view every setback as an opportunity to learn. As a result, they are helping the people around them to develop new capabilities and new thought processes that will prove valuable in the future.
In this series on key practices of leadership we have been discussing a variety of ways that leaders move their organization forward. All of these practices work together to make the leader and the organization more effective. We have examined how leaders build their organization and their people, how they inspire those around them to achieve a share vision, and how leaders communicate to promote clarity and collaboration. In future articles we will discuss how leaders enable their people to maximize potential and how they encourage people through positive relationships.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.