Today, in response to repeat requests for practical lessons in leadership, I will share with you some nuggets from my own journey in leadership, and to paint a full picture, I will tell both the good and the bad. It is important you learn these because leadership occurs at every level. In your current position, you too are a leader.
In our world today, there are many “authorities” on leadership. Some, whom have not run businesses, base what they write on observation, history, research and interviews. Others, like me, speak about the core principles of leadership, that were learnt and imbibed from decades of experience in running enterprises and gaining first-hand exposure in the thorny fields of the business world.
1) Always persevere: For my first job in banking, the application requested for only First Class and 2:1 graduates. But because I was relentless and determined to join the bank, I applied despite my 2:2, and wrote a cover letter explaining why I deserved a chance. The good news is that I got in.
We give up too early sometimes. Nothing is impossible. It is only impossible in your brain. Open your mind!
2) No sentiments in leadership: Let the best person get what he or she deserves. A person should not lose what they are entitled to because they are close to you, the same way another should not benefit unduly because they are close to you. People must earn what they get.
Don’t be overly emotional. Overcome your natural inclination to behave in a certain way and check favouritism. Your organisation should be merit-driven; there should be no “untouchables”, be intolerant of indiscipline, gossip and backstabbing.
3) Keep your competition on the radar: Monitor your competition. At all times, you need to know what others are doing. While you should be mindful of any creeping sense of psychological inferiority and avoid being paranoid, do ensure that competition stays on your radar as this is the only way to prevent complacency and being satisfied with mediocrity and old glory.
4) Take the difficult path: I’m not a shortcut person. I often take the path less taken, the seemingly more difficult path, because I understand that in the long run, this can create monumental impact. All the decisions I have made in life that have helped me were seemingly difficult decisions that ended up being rewarding in the long run. See what others don’t see, stay focused on the long run. As humans, we are used to seeing only the now. It takes the development of the mind to see beyond today.
5) Define your purpose: In turning around several businesses, we have realised how important defining your firm’s purpose is. One of our country CEOs at UBA transformed the country’s operations for good. In sharing how he achieved this, he told a story of how each staff had the bank’s purpose as their laptop screensaver. This was the first thing they saw in the morning upon resuming work, and the last thing they saw when leaving. The lesson is that to turn your staff to performers, they must feel committed to a higher purpose. Define your purpose, goal, orientation and focus. This sets direction.
6) Remain accessible: As CEO of then Standard Trust Bank, I sat on the same floor with my executives. This helped to build a strong bond that exists till today. As a leader, do not be far from your people. People must feel that they connect with you as a leader because the truth is people give their best to those they love. Interact with your people; attend their events, know their family, break artificial barriers because ultimately this kinship helps to achieve great results in the workplace.
7) Get the people equation right: Here, there are two parts.
i) Hire the right people: In all organisations I have led, I have been involved in recruitments from top to bottom. This is one responsibility I don’t easily delegate: leaders must be painstaking in choosing people who work with them. One wrong hire can ruin your organisation. Employees must be totally immersed, connected, enthusiastic and passionate. Post-hire, people management is crucial. You can’t be a successful leader if you don’t know how to manage people well, how to motivate people, how to make them happy, how to objectively assess, reward and discipline when necessary. As a rule, those around me must be at least as smart as I am. I surround myself with people I can learn from, people whose expertise complement my own skillset.
ii) Culture: Great leaders have a strong culture, an ethos of how things are done. This code is built in their system and they propagate, show, protect it, and don’t tolerate dilution. They are not scared to eject deviants.
8) Age is nothing but a number but remain humble: I became branch manager of a bank at a very early age of 26. However, I quickly learned that in leadership, age is not a factor. If you have a job to do, do it. Take charge and run the business. You were chosen to be leader for a reason, get the job done! However, leadership is first amongst equals. It must go with humility. You should not lord it over others.
9) Listen to others: It is not enough to say that you listen to others, you must practice this. As a leader, should be proactive in hearing from others, you must encourage others to speak up. It is the job of a good leader to listen to people. At meetings, call the quiet ones out to contribute. Give everyone a platform. This diversity in contribution will form an enriched and balanced decision at the end of the day. Many leaders want to be heard only. The mere fact that you’re appointed to lead means you are good. No need to impress anyone anymore.
10) The importance of marketing: Aggressively and passionately sell yourself. Deliberately manage your brand perception. As a leader, you must set how you want the world to see you. Define your own narrative. Don’t let the world set this for you because once done, you can’t do anything about it. These days, I’d much rather over communicate than under communicate.
11) Emotional intelligence: There is a crucial need for emotional intelligence in the workplace. This is different from diplomacy and office politics. Instead, it is being aware of how others feel and not focusing on your own emotions. It is a combination of humility, inclusiveness, empathy and maturity.
12) Execution: This is the art and discipline of getting things done. It makes all the difference. This is the translation of idea to action. Decisiveness is necessary for execution. Have an idea, define milestones, assess your movement from time to time to see where you measure – this is the process of execution.
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