It is a no-brainer that leadership is critically important for a business’ fate. There is also hardly any more surprise about what makes a good leader, as there is no shortage – indeed an abundance supply – of business literature and training materials about the all-time and universally popular subject of leadership. The thought-provoking question is: to what extent can the leadership of a person really be trained up and improved?
I recall it was our father of management, Peter Drucker, who suggested that anyone with a follower is, by definition, a leader. Of course, it does not necessarily mean that anyone who is put into a corporate management position with a team of staff under his instruction will naturally become a good leader.
The Board of a company will certainly not entrust the role of CEO to anyone whom they do not believe could lead the company forward to creating value for its shareholders and other stakeholders.
The incumbent needs to have a promising vision for the business. He needs to be able to form strategies and make business plans for realising the company’s vision and fulfill its corresponding missions; to mobilise resources and put them into the most productive uses possible in order to achieve the expected returns; to clearly articulate his vision, strategies and plans to all stakeholders concerned; to communicate with them for aligning varied interests and gaining their support; to motivate his staffs for winning their dedication; to coach them to do the right things and correct them from the wrong things; to basically do anything and everything necessary, indeed more than is necessary that he is capable of doing so, in order to fulfill his noble mission as a leader.
A lot of what is required of a leader can indeed be taught, in terms of concepts, business models and skills. For example, the coaching process can be surgically dissected and thoroughly analysed for the observers to comprehend and understand how best to coach and be coached in order to achieve the desired outcome of enlightenment and commitment to improvement There are also studies of leadership which refer to personality traits, drawing correlation between different types of character with different styles of leadership and, as such, awakening people in positions of leadership to self-awareness of their own inherent strengths and limitations.
All these teachings are fine and harmless, but hardly help to harness a person’s leadership for where it is most needed: the ability to make the right decision at the right time.
In stock-picking, as the simplest example, while no past track record can be a reliable base for predicting future performance, even for a minute forward, one single judgment of either buying or selling – or even just staying put – could mean millions or even billions of value creation or destruction for the stakeholders concerned. But it is exactly because of the uncertainty and volatility of the general business environment that business enterprises are most wanting of the leader’s acumen for making the right calls of action, particularly at where and when they count most.
Even for someone with the rare insights to be able to correctly pick winners and avoid losers most of the time, when an opportunity arises, he needs to be brave enough to seize it and take the necessary action accordingly; otherwise, his shrewdness is not only wasted but in fact adding to the pain of missing fortune.
But decisiveness can be difficult, particularly in a situation where the leader is holding a contrarian view as opposed to the popularly accepted convention. When a significant amount of resources is already committed to a losing business project where a lot of stakeholders’ interests are at risk, for example, it takes far more than a person’s shrewd judgment to call the decision to cut loss and write things off. He needs to have the gut to do it and face all consequences henceforth.
Another situation where decisiveness is usually in short supply but badly needed is one where opinions are severely polarised, where sitting on the fence is seemingly safer than taking any side but could be dangerously incurring the unfathomable cost of procrastination.
No training in leadership can make up for a person’s wisdom for and courage in decision making, indeed.