There’s plenty of commentary on the subject of leadership to suggest that no one thing makes a great leader, but instead, a combination of specific traits working together. Jeff Wolf knows this well — he recently wrote “Seven Disciplines of a Leader,” which was named one of the 11 most thought-provoking leadership books in 2014.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff to capture his insights on the subject and discuss the fundamental skills all leaders need to drive the success of their people, team and organization.
AF: Let’s start with discipline #1, and, more specifically, influence. In the book, you talk about influence through integrity. Why is one rarely accomplished without the other?
JW: People want their leaders to be role models whose allegiances and priorities are beyond reproach. Sadly, we see far too many leaders who lie and manipulate people, finances and processes to fit their needs. Leaders must have a strong character and integrity. The moment leaders bend the truth, they lose their credibility.
AF: The second trait you discuss in discipline #1 is initiative, which can be obscure for many people. How do you coach leaders on initiative?
JW: Seize the reins and set an example for the rest of the organization. If you’re in a reactive mode, you’ve lost the initiative. Events are effectively out of your control. Think ahead and make things happen, and make your choices count. There’s a thin line between what makes a leader effective and what marginalizes him or her. Know the difference.
AF: Discipline #2 is vision, strategy, and alignment. How do you bring all three of these concepts into practice?
JW: Highly effective leaders engage others in creating a clear, compelling, and inspiring vision and communicate it in such a way that everyone understands it and in a way that motivates and inspires people to work as a team toward common goals. Only then are people motivated.
Leaders must clearly define and paint an exciting path to the future while providing ethical and logical reasons as to why they’re moving in a specific direction. This builds support and enthusiasm, creating a culture where people are aligned and eager to participate in achieving company goals. No organization becomes great without a shared vision. A shared vision creates a commonality that gives a sense of purpose and coherence to all the activities in the organization as well as new ways of thinking and acting. It fosters risk-taking and experimenting. It also encourages a commitment to the long-term.
AF: When you describe priorities, planning and execution in discipline three, you talk about the six questions every leader should ask themselves. What are they?
JW: In their most basic form, planning and execution can be summarized by answering six key questions:
- Exactly where is our team, department or organization right now?
- What do we want to accomplish (goals and objectives)?
- What must we do to achieve these priorities (action steps)?
- Who will participate in planning and execution?
- How will we budget and manage costs?
- How will we know when we’ve successfully executed our plans (endpoint)?
If there is little agreement on purpose and direction, the culture is characterized by control, contention and confusion. The reason for this ineffectiveness is a lack of focus and execution. Execute by working the plan!
AF: I think a lot of leaders think about intelligence as it relates to education, but you talk about social, emotional and political intelligence with just as much emphasis. Why are these so important?
JW: Leaders with SEP intelligence exhibit self-control, which allows them to rise to the occasion, stay cool under pressure, and provide calmness, which reassures others that they’re in control, no matter how difficult things may seem.
AF: You also talk about SEP intelligence as it relates to negotiation and communication. Can you elaborate a bit?
JW: Most negotiation is positional bargaining and results in compromise at best. But when you get into synergistic communication, you understand basic needs and interests and find solutions to satisfy them both. If you get the spirit of teamwork, you start to build a powerful bond, an emotional bank account, and people subordinate their immediate desires for long-term relationships. Synergy means producing solutions that are far better than what either party originally proposed. You move from defensive communication to creative alternatives. When you truly listen, you transform the relationship. You don’t need to agree or disagree, just listen with empathy and capture how others see the world. This requires restraint, respect, and reverence. Making yourself understood requires courage and consideration. You go from fight and flight to two-way communication. Great leaders are great listeners who connect with people. Learn through listening. Listen openly, ready to learn, as opposed to listening defensively, ready to rebut.
AF: Your fifth discipline explains the synergy between reciprocation, collaboration, and service. How do these work together, and what is the connection?
JW: Effective leadership is not “my way or the highway” anymore. This may have worked in the old days, but it’s an obsolete notion. Today, effective leaders must influence others, creating a culture where people want to do things. A thirst for power will lead to your downfall; striving to influence will put you at the top of your game. Indeed, organizational goals should always be put above personal goals. We often read about leaders who pursue the latter, which does not serve the organization well. You always need to ask yourself: What can we do to make the organization, team, group or department better?
AF: A constant desire to be better ultimately comes from passion for what you’re doing. You talk about passion, specifically in the context of love and leverage in discipline six. Why is passion so important?
JW: If you lack passion about what you do, it may be difficult to inspire others to greatness and provide the direction and guidance your job requires. You don‘t have to have every skill necessary to become a great leader, but one of the most important things about being an effective leader is being passionate about your work and what you do. It‘s the same thing when you hire someone; they don‘t have to have great technical skills. You can teach technical skills, but you can’t teach passion.
AF: Your final discipline is renewal and sustainability, and initially my head went to a literal approach of sourcing, manufacturing, and facilities, but you talk about it as a personal trait. How so?
JW: The need for renewal and sustainability can be crucial, so much as to save careers. Nothing is truly permanent; things change and they can change for the best or they can change for the worst, but it is guaranteed they will change, and that renewal and sustainability are requirements to make positive changes last. If you don’t constantly improve and renew yourself, you’ll fall into entropy, closed systems and styles, where everything breaks down. Performance improvement requires continuous improvement, innovation, refinement, and renewal. Those who practice sustainability avoid common mistakes that often derail other leaders.
AF: Jeff, this has been insightful and incredibly useful. While mastering each of these disciplines takes dedication and time, they are attainable and something worth striving for every single day. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and congratulations on the success of the book.
100% of the proceeds from Seven Disciplines of a Leader will be donated to America’s veterans.