How Do You Spot A True Leader?

Q. I’m faced with reducing headcount because of the economy, but I’m afraid to make broad cuts because I don’t want to lose the true leaders in my company. How can I identify the true leaders from the wanabees and the blowhards? My biggest concern is that I think I’m too old to know what makes a great leader today. Mitch in Norfolk, VA.


Mitch, there seems to be confusion about what makes someone a “True Leader” in today’s business world. When we look at the historical examples of great leadership – George S. Patton, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, for example – we find terrific examples of leaders who accomplished great things given their circumstances, the existing societal cultures and political climate. More recently, we might look to business giants such as Ted Turner or Lee Iacocca as examples of great leaders, though, again, these men accomplished their greatest feats given their circumstances and certainly prior to the wireless world of today.


When we think of these great leaders of the past, we should try to remember the historical context and be careful not to confuse the traits required of today’s leader with those from the past. When we examine the names above, we think of qualities such as vision, character and drive. These men got things done, and they did so through the efforts of the entire team.


True leadership today, however, is not only about getting something accomplished through others – any manager can cajole, threaten and beat their team to accomplish some short term goal. True leadership is about accomplishments that come from a culture of high performance created by the leader. It still takes vision, character and drive; though it also requires something more in today’s society.


In Patton’s time, seventeen-year-olds could be ordered into battle knowing they probably would not survive – and, they were proud to do it. Today, you might have trouble getting a seventeen-year-old to show up to collect his paycheck every Friday.


To avoid sounding like a curmudgeon, I should preface the remark above with this: the good old days weren’t all that good. Information Technology created choice, and delivered versions of choice to all corners of the globe. For Americans, this choice involves working where we want, when we want, and if we want.


As recently as the early 1990s, if a teenager quit his job at the local fast food restaurant he might spend weeks finding a new one. He would drive, walk or bike to each of the competing restaurants in the area, spend thirty minutes at each location filling out an application, then have to go back another day for interviews. Today, being out of work is no big deal. A teen can pull up on his mobile phone and apply for positions before he leaves the parking lot of his former job.


Given the technology-aided lackadaisical nature of this generation of workers, how does a company increase productivity and drive profits without creating disgruntled workers ready to walk off the job at the drop of a hat? And, how can that company know which managers they can afford to lose and which ones they should keep at all costs?


(Hint: Patton would have a tough time getting someone to work the grill at McDonald’s in 2008.)


Compassionate, humble leadership by middle managers (those closest to the workforce) is the key to growth and prosperity for businesses of any size today. Inflation, unemployment and a weak dollar are going to force corporate America get lean again, but only those companies who deliver True Leadership to their rank and file can expect to weather the economic storm.


Unfortunately, when corporate America is forced to get lean, we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Terrible cliché, I know, but appropriate.) We take the term “Right-Sizing” too far and we right-size ourselves out of leadership and straight into management. Leadership is vapor (and we need to cut costs). Management is measurable (and we can justify the position). Management is black and white (you can see management in an organizational chart). Leadership is grey (and, well, who’s going to miss it anyway).


So what’s the answer for the CEO or midlevel manager faced with the task of stripping a few million out of the budget? Identify your leaders, and find a way to keep them. The hard part here is that unlike in Roosevelt’s day, leaders today don’t carry the biggest stick or speak the loudest at meetings. True leaders in today’s business world are driven to improve the company’s bottom line, and not their own – that makes them tough to spot, especially when you’re faced with cutting the fat. We can easily spot the sycophant or the blowhard, but today’s leader is a little less assuming.


Today’s true leaders check their egos at the door. They don’t demand a better parking space or perks not provided to all stakeholders. They may sit in the biggest office, but they’d rather be closer to their team. True leaders don’t “tell” as much as they “teach.” They don’t “order” as much as they “empower.”


Sift through your organization and find the teams (small or large) that are performing with high morale and low turnover. Enlist the leaders of these teams to help with the company’s right-sizing. Odds are that these leaders will help you make decisions that benefit the entire company and not just themselves.