Practice makes perfect... but only if you are willing to practice.
Doug Conant, former CEO of the Campbell Soup Co., makes this point clear with a story he tells about himself in his new book, "TouchPoints," co-authored with Mette Norgaard. As the fiscal crisis of 2008 was unfolding, Conant was worried about the effect it would be having on the people in his organization. In response, he made a practice of walking around the facilities, from the offices to the loading docks. Everywhere he went he engaged folks in conversation to get a feeling about what they were thinking. Typically, as measured by his pedometer, he would clock 10,000 steps a day.
Skeptics may say: "Doesn't the CEO of a Fortune 500 company have better things to do?" At that moment, the answer was probably no! Conant who was one of the nation's most respected (and well-liked) CEOs when he retired earlier this year. He did more than walk and talk; he was leading from the front in his company's moment of crisis.
Conant's conduct is similar to that of the best leaders I have known. Such leaders know that you cannot lead others unless you know what is on their minds. As much as it falls to the leader to set the direction for others, there's no guarantee they'll follow unless the leader knows how others will react to it.
In "TouchPoints," Conant and Norgaard argue for a "head, heart and hands" approach to leadership that draws on logic, emotion and personal commitment.
When it comes to putting leadership into practice, there is no faking it. It's hard work. Conant and Norgaard quote something that Wynton Marsalis wrote in his book, "To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road": "Don't start professing a love for the game. The love is what would have made you get your ass into shape."
Leaders face the same challenge when it comes to leadership. It's not what you say you will do, it's what you do that matters. So how to make it happen? Shift focus from yourself to those you lead. Specifically ask yourself three questions:
What does the organization need? You may answer this question with another question: Do people have what they need to succeed? It is the leader's responsibility to ensure that employees have the tools, resources and management to fulfill the organization's mission.
What can others do to help it? When an organization is running well, everyone is pulling together in the same direction. When things are not going so perfectly, it will fall to the leader to re-align the organization to its mission and ensure that people succeed.
What must I do to make certain we are on track? This question gets to the heart of leadership because it focuses on specific actions the leaders must take. The answers will be both strategic and tactical. But most important, they will focus on moving the organization forward in ways that engage people.
The questions are straightforward, but the answers they evoke make require a great deal of exploration and thought. That's natural; to lead effectively you need to willing to practice, practice, practice.