A few months back I was interviewed by Produce Business magazine on the ever-popular topic of leadership. I've included an excerpt below, though I didn't mention at the time the influence of rock & roll on my thinking about leadership.
Looking back on it now, I can see that I began to identify critical leadership qualities from working with or closely observing successful musicians, talent agents, business managers, equipment managers, sound engineers, record producers, club owners, and concert promoters. (Of course some of those individuals lacked one or more of these qualities, which had a negative impact on their results—but that was equally instructive to me!)
Anyway, here's a brief excerpt from the interview…
PBM: What qualities make a good leader?
JOL: Ah, so many qualities, so little time!
I could probably list a hundred of them, which would include the usual suspects on everybody's leadership list—including being ethical, having great listening skills, being able to sell your ideas, etcetera. But instead of giving you a boring taxonomy, let me mention a few qualities that maybe aren't so obvious.
First, I love leaders who don't claim to have all the answers.
Years ago there was a US presidential candidate, Jerry Brown, who when asked on the campaign trail what he would do about such and such problem would say: 'I don't really know. I'll have to give that some thought.'
Pretty heretical stuff, which got him in trouble with the pundits who had different expectations for a political leader! I found it refreshing though.
Of course as a leader you have to take a stand on things and you have to take action, but that doesn't mean you have to do so at every moment. I love the quality of 'not knowing' at times. I love the leader who has more questions than answers—ones that he or she will freely ask others, such as 'What would you do about this issue if it were your call?' or 'What can we learn from this mistake so we don't keep making it?'
Second, I love leaders who know how to build teams around them—teams that can collectively wrestle with those critical questions.
And these teams need to have real diversity to be useful—not folks cut from the same cultural cloth—so they actually think differently from each other.
Some leaders will turn decision-making over to these teams, others will use the teams to provide them advice. But either way a leader should appreciate the insights that emerge from multiple perspectives.
And I encourage dissent on the teams I coach. As Margaret Thatcher once said: 'I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job.' There has to be permission to disagree and then the ability to harness that conflict.
Third, I love leaders who see wisdom in more than one point of view. They can hear and consider many sides to an issue. They're not ideologically locked in or dug in.
(By the way, some of the greatest military leaders have been good at this—including General Dwight Eisenhower who in World War two had to manage a group of bickering commanders in Europe.)
These kinds of leaders can empathize with a wide variety of stakeholders. They can understand an employee perspective, a management perspective, an owner perspective, a customer perspective, a community perspective. They have the instincts of a mediator, while at the same time they know when it's time to make a decision and take action.
Fourth, I love leaders who know their job is to create an environment around them—we could call it a culture—where people don't walk the plank for their mistakes but where mistakes are noted, highlighted, discussed, promoted, and even celebrated—so the organization can learn the lessons from them. As my colleague Tom Peters likes to say: 'Reward excellent failures.'
Show me an organization where mistakes are punished (and I'm not talking about disciplinary matters here, I'm talking about performance mistakes) and I'll show you an organization where people cover up mistakes, no one learns from them, and everyone repeats them. Of course creating a retribution-free culture is no trivial undertaking, but the best leaders know how to do it.
Fifth, I love leaders who recognize that their job—and long-term responsibility—is to grow leaders around them.
I sat with a VP of a health benefits company once and had him look over his entire organization to see from what parts of the company the new leaders were emerging. I mean the ones who were modeling the values of the organization, the ones who were volunteering for projects, the ones who were most influential on their teams.
It turned out that nearly all the future leaders were coming from two departments where —voila!—there were two senior managers who excelled at developing people. Each of them took talent development quite seriously (and this was before people used that phrase). They spent a lot of time and energy coaching and developing their people—and reviewing their performance. And they loved doing that. That's leadership. Great leaders grow leaders.
Last, leadership is about action. Leadership involves movement, getting somewhere.
There's something inherently kinetic about leadership. Things happen around leaders. Even—or maybe especially—if it doesn't look like the leader is the one making it happen.
My favorite leadership quote is from that sixth-century-bc management consultant, Lao Tsu: 'When the best leader's work is done the people say we did it ourselves.'