During a personal leadership conversation recently, I discovered a principle that will assist a leader to access what I refer to as the “leadership zone”. We sometimes speak of being ‘in the zone’ when someone is on a winning streak or performing exceptionally well on a consistent basis at sports. Seeing as we have just experienced Wimbledon, a good example is the current winning streak of Novak Djokovic, during which time he has now beaten Rafael Nadal several times in tournament finals. He is ‘in the zone’.
Great champions and sports teams manage to get closer to ‘the zone’ more often than their competitors. In other words their level of performance is on average higher than their rivals, consistently. Often winning is not about the person or team with the best skills but more about who has the ability to access that zone or get close to it as often as possible. So what matters most in winning at the highest levels is understanding what it takes to get closer to the zone, assuming that great skills is a given. Ingredients may include: extraordinary desire; extraordinary discipline; extraordinary focus; extraordinary energy.
As a leader it is much harder to be in the zone because you are in the spotlight every day and not infrequently like a tennis star. A leader who manages to enter his leadership zone or at least come close performs on a much higher level and tends to pull his organization or responsible area into the zone with him. The extraordinary ingredients above will certainly help. In addition though, a principle that will bring you closer to your leadership zone is: caring for your people, while not caring what they and others think of you.
Some leaders really care about their people, but they also care so much about what their people think of them (wanting to be liked and respected) that they shy away from doing the tough and difficult things like reprimanding, confronting challenges, airing their views no matter how controversial and making decisions that are unpopular but right.
On the other hand, some leaders actually don’t care what their people think of them and can do what needs to be done no matter what, which is strength to some degree and results in fearless and decisive leadership. Leaders like these can be very powerful. But, this strength may be short-lived and eventually contribute towards their downfall when they don’t care about their people. Their fearlessness may be built on some selfish and even shaky foundation.
To find the balance between really caring for your people while honestly not caring what they think of you is difficult to do. Many achieve this partially, either the one or the other, or they succeed in the one area and partially in the other. Very few manage to live both parts of this principle consistently.
When applying this principle in full it does not automatically mean the leader is moving his people and organization in the right direction. However, more often than not, chances are that such a leader is leading his people down the right path because he listens to them, involves, empowers and respects them, looks after them and expresses appreciation regularly. He also manages to confront individuals when they don’t perform, with the right motive to help them and the organization.
He is able to do the right, though unpopular and difficult thing, for the organization, with an underlying motive of balancing the benefits for the organization with that of its people, in the long run. He is assertive and seldom aggressive.
What helped rugby icon Francois Pienaar move closer towards applying this principle was when he realized the following, in his own words: “I learned early in my career that 50 percent people like you and 50 percent don’t. That’s just nature. It does not matter what you do, some would brand certain actions as visionary while others would drag one down.” He further explained that once he made up his mind that no matter what he did not everyone would appreciate it he almost felt liberated.
I am convinced that when a leader is able to apply this principle in full he will feel liberated and move closer to his own leadership zone. In fact, even applying part of the principle, namely “not caring what your people think of you”, can feel liberating for a period.
To always be concerned about what followers, peers or your boss think of you is a heavy burden to carry. We all suffer from this syndrome, but the further a leader moves away from being driven by this motive, the more powerful and free he becomes.
People wonder why Julius Malema comes across as more powerful than most politicians. One of the reasons could be that he does not care what others (colleagues, followers, the media) think of him. Why he does not seem to care is another important issue for discussion on another day. However, this makes him powerful and frees him up to do and say what he wants. He comes across as fearless.
The most important question is whether he really cares about his followers? If not, chances are he will not be around too long in a democratic society like South Africa, although society does sometimes allow for selfish leaders who are fearless to stick around for a while. If however his fearlessness is also based on caring for his people he will become extremely powerful. But there are clear signs that he is not applying the full principle and is not in his leadership zone.
Is President Jacob Zuma in his leadership zone? How does he match up to this principle? Some may say he is a politician who cares too much about how his followers and others perceive him; perhaps trying to please is more important to him than simply doing what is right or doing what needs to be done because he cares for the people.
On the other hand, he may be a leader that cares about his people but is somewhat neutralized because of the weakness of caring too much about what his people and other stakeholders think of him. I don’t think he is in his leadership zone yet.
What about Zwelinzima Vavi? Most may perceive him as a leader who is closer to his leadership zone, whether or not one agrees with his philosophies. This could be why he has such a high level of influence, even beyond his direct support base.
Closer to your home, how does your chief executive stack up? How do you stack up? If I asked the people that you are responsible for what their perception of you was, what would they say? Are you in your full leadership zone, or part zone or even the no zone?
When a leader taps into a goal and owns it with his mind (how he will get there) and heart (passion), chances are he is close to or may even be in his leadership zone. However, if he really wants to remain in this special and exclusive zone he needs to also start caring about his people.
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