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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Practice Positive Leadership

“Positive Leadership” doesn’t simply mean the absence of overt negativity. It means remaining purposeful in the face of adversity. While it’s important to acknowledge the obstacles your organisation is facing, don’t dwell on them in meetings or in individual conversations, and don’t bring up bad news before you’ve pointed out one or two things that are going well. Instead of being disappointed by where you are, optimistically focus on where you are going.

Right now, negativity and fear are probably knocking your people off balance. It’s a scientifically proven fact that the nature of our thoughts affects our lives in tangible ways. If you think your best days are behind you, they are. However, if you think your best days are ahead of you, they are. Therefore, it’s time to regroup, refocus and unite your people to create a winning mindset, culture and positive team environment. Remember, culture drives behaviour. You win in the office first. Then you win in the marketplace. With a winning team, you create strength on the inside that can withstand the negativity, naysayers and adversity on the outside.

What Leadership Looks Like: Bill Walsh

When most people in the USA - sports fans, at least - think about the late Bill Walsh, they generally think about two things: (1) his creation of the "West Coast" offense, the fast-breaking, field-spreading plays that fundamentally changed football strategy on both sides of the ball; and (2) his three Super Bowl wins at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980s.

He was a football icon, no doubt. But in the final analysis, he was really much, much more than that. He was a leader of the highest order, possessing attributes and approaches we can all learn from, regardless of vocation.

Here is an assessment of Bill Walsh and what his legacy as a model leader should encompass:

Intelligence: Without question, Bill Walsh was one of the brightest and most cerebral of NFL coaches. In fact, prior to being hired, some in NFL leadership viewed this as a negative, unsure how his brilliance as a behind-the-scenes strategist would translate into an on-the-field leader. The cynics were proved wrong and his brainpower became a priceless asset during his tenure as head coach at both Stanford and the 49ers.

Innovation: The West Coast offense was, in Clay Christensen's parlance, a "disruptive technology." In a similar vein as the forward pass, the West Coast offense caused competitors to rapidly change their schemes lest they get blown off the field by a high-percentage, fast-scoring offensive strategy. This meant re-fashioning both their offense and their defense, giving the 49ers a sizeable lead that translated into three Super Bowl titles in eight years.

Mentoring: Mr. Walsh was likely the one coach that seeded more future NFL head coaches than any other, creating a "coaching tree" that is hard to believe if you follow professional football. He was also a ground-breaker in promoting the case of minority coaches, including Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, Dennis Green and Ray Rhodes. He invested in his people and brought the best out of them, remaining involved in their professional and personal lives far beyond their tenure with his teams.

Confidence: Bill Walsh was certainly not cocky, but displayed a confidence in himself that clearly impacted his players and coaches alike. It also helped in recruiting. Who could turn down an approach from Mr. Walsh, whose intellect and on-field success built an already sizeable confidence in himself into an unstoppable force. His confidence was contagious and helped elevate those working with him to a higher level.

Respect: Bill Walsh had respect for his players, his staff, his opponents and the game itself. Notwithstanding the more aggressive techniques of other coaches, he treated his players as intelligent with men who were better motivated by teaching and guidance than by threats and intimidation. He respected the media, answering questions and not lashing out even in the face of defeat. His coaches were treated as integral parts of the system, not simply as cogs in his coaching machine.

Recruitment: He was one of the best judges of talent that ever lived. Whether it was Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young or many others, his assessment of value and his ability to realise that value in his programme was unparalleled. But none of this would have mattered if the players weren't excited to play for him, giving their all that was critical to the success of his teams. But he had an uncanny sense of which players to field at what time, creating match-up problems that directly contributed to their historic achievement in the most important games.

Just a good guy: Players, fellow coaches, sportswriters... they all liked Bill Walsh. What wasn't there to like? He may not have been an electric guy but he was a good guy, a nice guy, a smart guy, a sometimes funny guy. He just got along with people, people from different walks of life who had their own agendas and motivations. But somehow, he almost always left a good impression that served him well at that moment and beyond.

There is nothing about the elements of Bill Walsh's success that are unique to football. They are applicable to all of us who either are or aspire to be leaders, be they of teams or entire companies.

It it sad that Bill Walsh died such a young man.

All Leaders Have a Brand

All leaders have a brand. Whether that term is used or not, leaders have an identifiable persona that is a reflection of what they do and how others perceive them. This is their leadership brand.

When it comes to cultivating a leadership brand, look no further than Oprah Winfrey, who recently announced that she would be ending her popular talk show in 2011. In a perceptive analysis, New York Times media columnist David Carr suggests that Winfrey's brand and the key to her longevity is a combination of things she didn't do as well as things that she did do. On the "don't do side," she did not over-merchandise nor take her company public; she kept control of her products and thereby her image, unlike Martha Stewart. On the "do side," she always stayed true to herself. As she told her business partner Gayle King years ago, "I don't know what the future holds but I know who holds it."

The lessons of Oprah's brand are relevant to any leader.

First and foremost, understand that brand is what you develop as well as what others perceive. The balance between reality and perception can be shaky if you are not careful, but as we have seen from Oprah, not impossible.

Here are some lessons for cultivating your own positive leadership brand.

Practice what you preach. It's easy to say, but when the going gets tough, how many supposed leaders disappear into the shadows? Those who lead by example are willing to make tough decisions and be accountable for the consequences. They are also willing to lend a hand to colleagues and direct reports. These are go-to people who work extra hard when necessary. Nothing is stronger than seeing the boss do heavy lifting alongside an employee during crunch time.

Act on principle. This applies to work, where principles determine the quality and attention you deliver, as well as to values, where principles determine behaviour. Employees who see their bosses standing up for the right way of doing things in the face of competition (from inside and outside the organisation) will believe and follow. For example, make certain that employees are compensated (either monetarily or in time off) for overtime and are receiving recognition for jobs well done.

Insist on integrity. When it comes to a leadership brand, integrity is the lever one uses to get things done the right way. That means treating people with respect, regardless of their positions. Act for the benefit of the organisation first and yourself second. Do things that honour the work you do as well as the people who work for you. Talking about integrity is one thing; insisting that you and your colleagues abide by is what matters. Integrity is not reserved for big corporate dealings; it can focus on small things. For example, in tough times, make the choice to fly economy class rather than business class.

Some who read this might be thinking, 'nonsense'! As a leader my job is to lead others not worry about my image. True, but not entirely. Your job as a leader depends upon getting others to follow your lead; they must trust you. Trust is essential to leadership, and a brand — how people perceive you — is critical to encouraging followership.

And there's one final point. Leaders make mistakes. A strong brand, just as a strong sense of self, can aid in a comeback. People will readily forgive a misstep if they believe your intentions were good. This applies not only to mistakes in business judgment but mistakes about people too. If you have done well, but make a bad call about a product or process, or even if you insult a colleague, a strong brand will give you a safety net. As long as you act quickly and make amends, you can restore trust because you have created a legacy of good will.

In short, your brand is a reflection of your credibility. Develop it wisely and nurture it carefully and it will help you create strong bonds of trust with your followers. Any doubt, just ask Oprah.