Among the misfortunes in life is that by the time you really figure something out, you’re no longer in a position to do anything about it. In other words, you’ve failed. I’ve found that being in positions of so-called leadership provides plenty of opportunities for one to fall short. For example, I founded and ran a business for thirty-five years and I’ve also held the chair or presidency of numerous non-profits along the way. When concluding my role or term at each, I could only look at what I’d done and think, “If only I had tried this instead….” As unhappy a circumstance as this might seem, however, it highlights a paradox: great joy may be present within failure. For you can’t see your shortcomings unless you have learned from them, and learning is not only beneficial, it’s fun!
I hope here to share some of this joy by examining what I might have learned about the quality that is commonly called leadership. Since I’ve failed so often in this regard, I should know an awful lot by now and ought to be able to offer something from which others might benefit. This should hold especially true if you work in a small business, as I had for so many years.
Leadership is not the job of leaders only. All small business owners understand the need to orient their staff toward making customers or clients happy. Likewise, those in management roles must mobilize their charges to meet the objectives of the company. And even those who might consider themselves mere “worker bees” need to know what leadership is because they must know what their leaders should deliver to them.
An aspect of leadership that is rarely overemphasized is the need to communicate effectively. Keeping this in mind, I will follow the “rule of threes,” first postulated in the fourth century BC by Aristotle. The ancient Greek philosopher noted that recall is easiest when ideas are grouped in a trio. Architects are familiar with the Classical era Roman engineer Vitruvius, who listed three qualities of good buildings: usefulness, durability, and beauty. Centuries later Thomas Jefferson encapsulated human aspirations in the immortal words, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here I will focus on leadership guru Richard Chait’s three “modes” of leadership: generative, strategic, and fiduciary.
Chait’s Governance as Leadership was written to guide non-profit boards, but it nevertheless incorporates a great deal of wisdom for any business, including smaller ones. The first mode is what he calls “generative” leadership. This focuses on meaning, purpose, and values—the basics. What are we doing as a company? Who do we serve? What is important to us as we serve our clientele? These fundamentals are oftentimes captured in what are termed “mission” and “vision” statements.
In this context, I consider “mission” to be a verb; it is what you do. It also specifies, by omission, what you don’t do or what you shouldn’t do. Any organization can do only so much effectively, and understanding what to leave out helps maintain focus on what you do well—authors C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel called these your “core competencies.” Thus, a company’s mission states its purpose—what it needs to do to serve whom it needs to serve. If “mission” is a verb, then “vision” is a noun. It creates an image of what an organization should be, in order to do what it needs to do.
An online search will find many good mission and vision statements. It’s not essential that these follow the verb-noun protocol outlined immediately above; what’s important is that they state what the organization does, and what it needs to be. It’s crucial that mission and vision statements communicate meaning, purpose and values. A particularly good example is that of Reach Unlimited, one of my former firm’s clients (Google it).
The second mode of leadership described by Chait is the “strategic.” Strategy charts the path to accomplish what’s set forth in the mission and vision. It is the “how” to accomplish the “what.” The word comes from the Greek root strategia, which means “generalship,” thus connotes the activities of deploying resources with the intent of attaining victory.
Everyone who’s been in business, no matter what your position or level, engages in strategy. You need to, in order to get anything done! You need to know how to use your tools to good effect. More important in this age of automated work, you must know whose help you’ll require, and how to make your work and theirs productive. Even those who think their work depends on being “told” what to do engage in higher level thinking. Since it is impossible for them to be given instructions that cover every single small task, they must fill in the gaps, an act that requires thought regarding the method of filling—the strategy—to do so.
Finally, the last of Chait’s three modes of leadership is the “fiduciary,” which describes the responsibilities of oversight. Fiduciary comes from the Latin fidere, to “trust.” Trust is not gained by having a great idea, or a great product or service. Trust is earned only by following through on commitments, which requires attention to the details.
Fiduciary leadership thus includes financial oversight but it also encompasses all of the detailed aspects of operations such as personnel, IT, risk management, facilities—and the project or product work that supports these. Chait warns that it is too easy for leaders to absorb themselves in the details, especially financial. As a former small business owner, I can assure you that this is true. Of course, no organization exists for long if it is not financially sound, so there is plenty good reason to pay close attention to the flow of money. But one needs to do this without becoming a micro-manager. Leaders should force themselves to address the strategic and generative aspects adequately. Every so often, reflection is required to ensure that the firm is what it should be and is going about things the right way.
Many small businesses don’t devote much if any formal effort to generative and strategic activities. This is alright as long as everyone in the firm understands its purpose, values, and direction. In my former firm we had a mission statement, but I doubt if many could recite it. We had strategy sessions too, but perhaps too few. Therefore, I tried to use routine discussions and meetings regarding administrative or project activities as opportunities to convey higher-level kinds of information. Formal processes are good, but they are not vital provided that everyone in the firm knows what’s important.
To summarize, leadership is not something that only a handful of people in an organization provide. It needs to be an activity performed through all levels of a company, no matter the size. Meaning, purpose, direction, and execution are all everyone’s responsibility. There is no exemption from any of the modes of leadership.