Over the years, I have had opportunity to observe, up close and personal, literally hundreds of chief executive officers. Almost all of them have had intellect. Almost all have had basic ability. Almost all have had desire.
However, intelligence, experience, and personality are no guarantees of success as a leader. Many chief executive officers I have known have succeeded as leaders, but too many others have failed. What made the difference? What separated the good from the bad? What distinguished the winners from the losers? Without exception, the common denominator has been the ability to shape and communicate a message of relevance and impact.
The successful leaders understood the cultures in which they operated. They were able to shape realistic goals that responded to needs. And they were able to communicate those goals to their constituencies.
The ineffective leaders, in contrast, never seemed to get it. Instead of understanding their cultures, they typically tried to ignore them or lead around them. Instead of shaping realistic goals, they tended to chase rainbows. And instead of communicating a clear message of hope and optimism, they typically chose to focus on the negative and blame others for their failures.
At the top, every word is magnified, every memo analyzed, every speech evaluated. In a society dominated by open mikes, full disclosure, and information overload, the person at the top is constantly speaking and acting in a fishbowl. There is no refuge. Casual comments off the cuff have as much potential as well- planned, major policy addresses to grab headlines and generate spotlights. Leaders have to accept this reality and act accordingly.
Finding effective ways to keep lines of communication open is no easy task. Circumstance and setting are important factors that must be considered in choosing the methods of communication to adopt. What is effective in one place may not work in another.
I have determined that there is no such thing as too much communication or too much exposure. Many management experts believe that a leader should maintain some distance between his/her constituents to preserve what is often described as the mystique of leadership. That belief may have been valid thirty years ago, but it simply won’t work today in an information- dominated society.
I found several techniques that kept lines of communication open. Perhaps the most effective approach was one I started in my first university presidency. Simple in concept, but substantive in results, the “dutch treat” luncheon became a trademark of my administration.
For eleven years on two different campuses, I hosted luncheons every week or two in the student cafeteria. These luncheons were open to anyone – students, faculty, administrators, support staff, alumni, and even people off the street. No subject was off limits, and most of the time was devoted to answering questions and receiving comments from participants.
It was always interesting to watch the pattern of the ebb and flow of participation rates. Invariably, the numbers would fluctuate depending on the issues at play and the intensity of emotions regarding those issues. At times, the number of participants would drop below ten, prompting my staff to plead that the event had outlived its usefulness.
I saw it differently. From my perspective, low participation was a good sign, an indication that the constituencies were generally content with our leadership efforts. My belief was affirmed occasionally when some issue would flare and cause the participation in the luncheons to expand significantly, sometimes to as many as 200.
In any event, the luncheons proved effective at keeping lines of communication open, and they provided an early warning system to detect signs of growing discontent.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com