Think about it. Do you have a view of the leaders you are suffering or thriving under? Of course, you do! You think about them and, at the coffee station and in the canteen, you talk about them. When someone brings up the poor leaders you have experienced, you probably roll your eyes and you enthuse about the good ones. You can probably describe every leader in your view of the world by the brand of leadership they exercise. If this is true for you, then why would it not be true of you. You can be assured that once you have moved into some position of leadership, you begin to build a public leadership brand. This will happen, whether you like it or not.
So why should you care? Well, there are several reasons why you should take this very seriously. Today, unlike in centuries past, the ability of organisations to compete in the marketplace is more and more reliant on the capabilities of the people that are working for us. As we enter the 4th industrial revolution, provided there is sufficient capital, any technology is attainable by anyone and the advantage that we may get from technological investment is no longer distinguishing. Conversely, competitive advantage is still deeply linked to our people and the difference they can make to our organisations.
While we recognise the great value our people bring, leading them effectively generally remains a challenge. Our bookstore shelves creak with tomes whose authors suggest that they have found the secret to leading. The number of journal articles researching the effectiveness of different leadership theories is daunting to those studying the field, leadership being one of the best researched subjects in the social sciences. Yet, as we stand today, there is not a single accepted leadership theory which trumps the rest, and while we may find an author or a theory which we really like today, tomorrow something else will emerge which we will relate to equally well. Why is this?
Well, could it be that because every one of us is different. We each have a different outlook on the world and various value systems. We have experienced different leaders and possess different talents and abilities. Perhaps it is unrealistic and unlikely that we will ever discover a leadership solution where ‘one size that fits all’. We are much more likely to find a ‘unique shoe that fits my individual persona’.
When I ask students what a brand is, the response is always something like this: “It is a symbol of what something is known for.” We recognise some brands instantly and immediately respond to that brand based on our expected experience. We easily trust powerful brands and we are not confident about investing in weak ones. When we think about leaders in our communities, they have their own brands. These brands are built up and nurtured over years. We easily trust some and fear or reject others.
It is my experience in the field that most people invest a huge amount of effort building their technical skill, but invest very little time in thinking about and developing their leadership brand. Yet when it comes to promotions and developing a career path, or achieving success through people, the functional skills that got you into a job are not the skills that will allow you to succeed as a leader. Sadly, leadership is not on the agenda of most education programmes.
So, if leadership is critical for my future success, and if there is not a single quick fix leadership theory that I can take off the shelf, then surely the quest to discover a personal leadership brand becomes a critical area of self-development. But how am I to do this?
I am convinced that to develop a leadership brand is not a simple single ‘aha moment’. It is a life journey which is only achieved through a process of constant, disciplined personal review and reflection. The process I like to facilitate looks like this:
- Consciously, become leadership aware: There are plenty of leadership lessons going on before you each day. As you view the world around you, begin to look at it through a leadership lens. When you read the newspaper, attend a meeting or watch a sports match, try to identify the leadership component of what you are observing. Also begin to observe how others respond to your leadership. Of course, there are tons of books you can read, but, like an artist drawing from real life, observing leadership in practice is far more memorable.
- Develop an opinion: As you observe leadership, and as you practise leadership yourself, you need to consciously begin to recognise what works for you and what does not. Ask the questions: Why did she inspire me, and he not? You also need to reflect on your own leadership practice. Ask yourself how that meeting went, whether you really inspired them. How did they experience your leadership during the last performance management process? How did you respond when they failed or let you down?
- Record and reflect: If the first two steps are part of your natural way of observing the world, this one is unlikely to be. While you gain information through various experiences, it is only when you internalise them that you begin to self-regulate your own behaviour. If you are serious about building a leadership brand, then continuously ask yourself the question: What type of leader do I want to be? Start it by writing the answers down. There is massive power in putting your thoughts down on paper.
- Constantly refresh and recalibrate: Developing a leadership brand is not a once-off exercise. Developing a leadership brand is a life discipline. Your brand is something which needs constant reflection and recalibration based upon your experience of what is working in practice and what is not. Using a coach or attending a reflection-based leadership programme can help you work through this.
So, how will you know whether your intended leadership approach has become a brand or is recognised by those you lead? How will you know what is in the minds of the people you lead? You won’t know, not directly anyway. No one is going to come up and tell you that you are a great leader. If they do, you should wonder what their agenda is.
If your people avoid you, seem unsure of themselves around you and only tell you what they think you want to hear, then your positional power, rather than your leadership, is in play and you may not like the brand that you are projecting. But if you are deeply aware of how you lead, and keep recalibrating, you will begin to see the product of your brand. When your people start to trust and confide in you, when they ask your opinion, when they take personal responsibility, when you see them growing, when they are clearly inspired by what they are doing, then you are probably doing something right and what has emerged is a personal leadership brand that you can be proud of.
Dr Charles du Toit teaches on USB’s postgraduate diploma in leadership and is part of USB-ED’s virtual faculty. He leads a new niche Leadership and HR consultancy focused on assisting individuals and companies to develop their leadership brands.