Do’s and Don’ts of Leadership

Good leaders never stop learning more about themselves and their environment

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The current business environment is fast-paced and constantly changing. It requires courageous business leaders who are driven by purpose and passion to navigate organisations to calm waters. Recent news headlines are highlighting the importance of doing things in a resilient way for business in these tough economic times. Taking short cuts will prove dire in the coming years as we’ve seen with Volkswagen in their recent scandal.

George Ambler, in his article, Leading in Turbulent Times, says: "Fish don’t know they’re in water. Fish are surrounded by water at all times. They’re used to living in water; it’s all they know, so it becomes impossible for them to see it! To get fish to see the water you’d need to help them step outside their environment. Only then would they be able to look from the outside-in and see the water.

It’s the same for leaders. We cannot see the environment or the context in which we lead. When leaders fail to recognise the context in which they’re leading bad things happen. We apply out dated leadership practices. We blindly repeat the ideas and practices that lead to yesterday’s success and as a result it leads to Leadership Failure!”

Given the above, what can today’s leaders do to ensure that yesterday’s solutions which resulted in their success do not become tomorrow’s problem that lead to failure?

Effective leaders adopt a culture of continuous learning to remain relevant and create the future they desire. In other words, to lead effectively in this challenging business environment, leaders need to have both an open mind, heart and will to see things differently and adopt new leadership practices to succeed.

The following ten Do’s and Don’ts for leaders are suggestions that can position any leader for sustainable success:


Invest in knowing yourself – leaders who have a clear knowledge of self do better than their counterparts who lack self-knowledge. It is important to know what drives your engine and what you bring to this world to contribute meaningfully. This requires all leaders to be able to answer the question, “What is my purpose in life?” Your contribution should not stop within your organisation but should extend in areas of your life towards creating a better world and contributing to the greater good. Effective leadership is more about being who you are, not just doing. “We can’t lead others if we can’t lead ourselves nor can we lead ourselves if we don’t know ourselves”

Understand how you impact on others – most leaders are aware of what they are good at and equally so, what they are bad at. What is seldom known when doing what we are good at or bad at is how it affects or impacts others. Effective leaders are aware of the impact they have on others through their actions or lack of actions. Leaders’ actions either lead to higher employee engagement or disengagement, hence leaders need to be intentional with their actions at all times.

Make time to think - Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, owners of Berkshire Hathaway, have made it a habit to schedule thinking time in their diaries without compromising this important task. No wonder they experience the success that they do. Quality thinking is in the minority in business today because most leaders value doing, rather than thinking. To be effective as a leader you need to slow-down and think more before doing because quality thinking leads to quality actions.

Read rigorously and let go of old ways – It is said that, “Leaders are readers”. To lead effectively requires that we open ourselves up to the unknown and learn new ways (practices and tools) that will urge us to do things differently to create the results we desire. The better the mental models we hold, the better the decisions we make in these turbulent times.

Spread the energy of optimism – effective communication remains the challenge of many leaders to move people to act in ways that takes the organisation forward. Effective leaders have learnt the value of communicating consistently and constantly to inspire their teams and infuse them with the optimism that gives energy to engage meaningfully with the business objectives. Leading by example by living the organisational values is the greatest way to spread the energy of optimism within the organisation. The old analogy still holds true today “monkey see, monkey do”. Teams will always do what their leaders are doing irrespective of what they say, so to spread the energy of optimism, let your behaviour be the loudest tool you use to communicate.

Do not:

Assume you know – Otto Scharmer in his book, ‘Theory U’ highlights the three stages of creating high-performing individuals and organisations alike. He says we need to have an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will. Assumption remains one of the hindrances in effective communication or getting the best from teams. Being an effective leader requires an ability to unlock people’s potential by engaging in new unfamiliar ways. For that to happen we need to assume less about people and ask relevant questions to gain knowledge. Be willing to suspend what you think you know to listen attentively to your people. You will surprised by what they know and how much you can learn.

Blame others – According to Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, blame is defined as a way to discharge pain and discomfort, which means one who is blamed has a need to self-preserve from the discomfort and pain that’s being directed towards them. This results in poor collaboration, low trust between individuals and teams, lack of accountability and ownership. Effective leaders engage in ways that leads to the truth without discharging pain and discomfort to others. We need to develop relationships of trust if we are to navigate our organisations into stable waters. When people feel safe (not blamed) they tend to trust and cooperate with each other to do amazing things. Effective leaders have learnt to engage teams in a manner that fosters trust and cooperation.

Micromanage your people ­– Many studies have shown that what motivates people beyond money are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Giving people room to do what they need to do with clear guidelines, boundaries and expectations results in amazing things happening, whereas micromanaging people lowers creativity, innovation and perhaps engagement. Leaders need to learn to let go and trust more.

Always give instruction and engage– If commitment, ownership and accountability is what leaders are looking for from their employees, then coaching should become the default behaviour rather than giving instructions. Engage individuals to understand by listening to their views, rather than to manipulate.

Hold experience in high esteem over learning – The value of experience is untold; however, as the context of work changes, new experience is needed and that will mean letting go of the old to learn new ways to gain new relevant experience. Going back to Brian Eagar’s comment, leaders need to learn to be comfortable to take old lenses off and try new lenses to create sustainable results.

The longer we hold on to what was once good, the longer we will remain prisoners of the past. Effective leadership has a lot to do with being courageous and to be courageous one has to embrace the power of vulnerability, letting go of egos. As Gandhi said “…We need to be the change we hope to see in the world.”

Reward Ngcobo is a facilitator at TowerStone. He is a teacher at heart with a desire to bring out the best in others, in so doing making a difference in life. His passion for people and respect for individuals are values he uses in helping others “come alive” (find meaning). He believes that when individuals are switched on, they go beyond the call of duty.


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