A leader’s approach, vision, exhibited characteristics, and mindset are key factors in the long run success of any organization.
The leader’s approach will normally be based in part upon:
- The organization they lead.
- Their personality and characteristics.
- What they wish to achieve.
However, great leaders will also make critical choices in formulating their approach to successfully steer company direction toward intended end results. Four questions leaders should ask and answer in making these important approach choices are:
- What specific driving factor will best position the company for long run performance and accomplishments?
- How should the scope of the company mission be framed?
- Which leadership style will yield the best results and outcomes for the company?
- What type of culture must be developed and fostered within the company?
To assist leaders in evaluating these four questions this article discusses at a conceptual level:
- How a leader’s driving factor will impact company outcomes.
- The value in properly framing the company mission and potential consequences of limits imposed upon the company vision/mission scope either by poor design or omission.
- Major leadership styles and their potential ramifications on company operations and achievements.
- The importance of leadership’s role in shaping company culture and thus influencing the potential for long-term company productivity.
The goal of this article is to provide leaders with takeaway concepts and ideas they may utilize in selecting and/or adapting appropriate approach options which will apply to their specific circumstances. Hopefully, insight gained will aid their selection process and thereby increase their potential for achieving success.
Each business will present a unique set of circumstances. Therefore, a tailored leadership approach will benefit every company. The CEO must evaluate and understand their company’s specific situation and select the best leadership approach criteria to produce top-notch results. When selecting the four criteria, the leader must also consider the potential interactions and outcomes of the four selected criteria when melded together, in creating their leadership approach. Leaders who fail to embrace the importance of the four criteria selections within their approach may doom their companies to sub-par levels of performance. At best, if they are dedicated, they might expect to achieve average to good results via mere chance or through trial and error. Bottom-line: leaders who make informed sound choices and decisions in terms of their leadership approach criteria will significantly increase their odds for success.
This article is specifically focused upon business leadership but draws insight and contrast from other areas, such as the military, politics, sports, and nonprofits, in discussion of concepts, potential outcomes, and possible consequences.
[Note: the inherent value of a company’s mission and vision is discussed in an earlier article. The importance of a leader’s mindset and focus is discussed here. The role of exhibited leadership characteristics is discussed in this piece.]
Major points for consideration in answering the four leadership approach questions.
- Driving Factor. What motivates a great leader may, or may not, be directly related to the specific driving factor the leader selects to move their company forward. Top-tier leaders must choose a driving factor they know will move the company to the top of their business niche, as opposed to one which is self-serving, short-sighted, or may not function effectively with their specific business model. Entrepreneurial leaders, in their quest to produce highly successful businesses, have several driving factor concept options to select from, depending upon which one will best serve the company’s needs in focusing their efforts.
Here are examples of driving factors, including a few with potentially negative impacts:
- Pursuing a dream, idea, or a game changing innovation.
- Solving a certain problem.
- Producing a specific product, class of products, or service.
- Providing consumers with superior products they want, need, or desire.
- Supporting or advancing a specific ideal or concept such as customer service, product quality, individual freedoms, or better public education.
- Driving a competitor out of business.
- Constantly seeking to reduce production costs in order to be more competitive.
- Seeking to supply consumers with the best, most prestigious, status symbol version of a product, such as expensive sports cars or watches.
- Gaining an edge on potential competition as the first company to implement a new technology or invention.
- Furnishing an intrinsic value to society in an area such as medicine.
- Carving out a niche within an established industry.
- Positioning the company to successfully adapt to change.
- The pursuit of wealth.
- The pursuit of power.
- “Winning” or seeing themselves as winners.
- Seeking prestige or fulfilling a narcissistic or egotistical goal.
- Singularly focused on a bottom-line management concept such as meeting or exceeding a specific level of return on investment.
In contrast, military leaders at all levels, are normally charged with a specific task: “Protect this fort”, “Command this aircraft carrier”, or “Accomplish this objective with your platoon of Marines”. Nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross or Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are created to pursue specific objectives. Respectively, these may be summarized as: maintaining a readiness to assist people after natural disasters or fighting to change the laws and morals of society to reduce the tragedy of innocent people killed and injured by drunk drivers. Military leaders and CEOs of major nonprofits are not hired to produce a financial return on people’s investments. They are provided with the goals and objectives of their organizations upon assignment to their positions. However, as a leader, in seeking success for their organization, they will still benefit from having a guiding force or driving factor behind them. This driving force should play a key role in determining their mindset and approach, the execution of the organization’s stated mission, and the type of culture they wish to instill.
Behind upper echelon leaders there is either a defined driving factor in place or a focused shortened version of the mission statement which serves the same purpose. The driving factor, regardless of its origin, sets the compass for the leader every day in defining, and assisting them in articulating, needed company direction and intended end results. A well-thought-out ad slogan, as outlined in another article, which represents a condensed version of the mission statement, could also function as a driving factor concept, thus serving several purposes at the same time. As examples, Burger King’s “Have it your way”, BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, or Avis Car Rental’s “We Try Harder” might all work perfectly as a great leader’s driving factor within the context of these companies. A leader without a clearly defined and appropriate driving factor may be subject to whims, unnecessary course corrections, uncertainty, misdirections, or a lack of focus toward a company’s needed actions, decisions, and required direction.
Clarification point: the leader’s driving factor is a concept. A solid case could be made for a driving factor potentially containing more than one interrelated element. However, a multi-faceted driving factor will not change how the concept functions in shaping the leader’s approach. Therefore, this article has been written from the viewpoint of the leader’s driving factor perceived as a singular dimension concept, regardless of how many nuances a leader might include.
- Scope of the mission statement. Leaders in defining and articulating a company’s vision/mission should include criteria such as purpose, scope of operations, direction, goals and objectives, intended end results, and the focus for their companies. In addition, there is an opportunity to also frame a larger dimension or breadth for the company in executing these important criteria. This step in the vision/mission development is often overlooked for many reasons. Human nature focuses a company’s efforts toward defining “specific end results” in terms of the “here and now” over the next few years or within industry specific confines of traditional wisdom and foresight.
A major difference between good leaders and highly effective leaders is their ability to understand a bigger picture potential, longer timeframes, or an alternative universe to operate within. Top level leaders will incorporate a larger scope or dimension into their visionary wisdom for the company in taking it to the next level. For example, these leaders may be able to perceive and articulate an intrinsic value of their products, make it a part of the company mission statement, and incorporate it into the company culture. Or, in the case of a professional sports team, they may frame their mission, goals, and objectives with a stated intent to build and become a sports dynasty over the next 30 years rather than merely focusing on winning that sport’s yearly trophy event.
President John. F. Kennedy’s direction to NASA is an example of an alternative universe concept. He asked them to move the United States ahead of the Russians in the space race by putting a man on the moon.
- Leadership style. Leadership styles include:
- Autocratic or authoritarian where a single controlling leader makes all decisions with basically zero input from others.
- Hands-off, or Laissez-Faire which yields autonomy, limited direction from the leader, and freedom for groups to make their own decisions.
- Transactional which results in a myriad of instructions, clear goals to be met, specific objectives to be attained, requirements to follow rules, and inherent inflexibility.
- Democratic or participative where shared decisions made by engaged group members promotes creativity.
- Transformational where leaders are described as passionate, enthusiastic, and highly creative and who motivate, inspire, and support team members in attempting to unleash their company’s full potential.
These types of leadership styles may be subjected to modifications when a crisis arises within a company or when utilized by a charismatic or inspirational leader. The business model of a company and/or their specific situation may benefit from, or function more effectively under, one specific leadership style over another. Adept leaders may also employ more than one style, depending upon several different circumstances or factors. The leadership style selected and used, should yield the greatest potential for the company to reach the pinnacle of their business niche. In addition, it should exhibit a significant positive influence on the created company culture and thereby maximize the company’s potential productivity.
Great leaders in selecting a leadership style need to evaluate:
- The mission and vision of their company.
- The factor driving them.
- The culture they need to cultivate within the company to be successful and yield a competitive edge in their market.
- The expected effectiveness or importance of a specific leadership style within their industry or current situation.
- The business environment the company will be operating in.
- Their business model.
Strong, autocratic leadership styles have been successfully utilized in business, sports, and military conquests. Martha Stewart, Tony La Russa, and Attila the Hun are cited as examples.
- Company Culture. Company culture is a created characteristic. A positive culture is a crucial component in positioning a company for long-term achievements via an inherent provided competitive edge in the market. Examples leaders set, their personality and characteristics, their driving factor, their leadership style, and the scope of the mission statement will all directly influence and help determine the company’s working atmosphere or culture. The company culture will be a clear indicator of company adaptability and potential performance in a constantly changing business environment. The longer the tenure of a leader, the more emphasis on building a highly effective culture, the more likely this culture will become deeply engrained. A culture emphasizing ideals such as customer service, innovation, sustainability, adaptability, corporate responsibility, and/or fulfilling intrinsic social values will produce better results over time. In contrast, a culture fixated on building one specific product, singly focused on return on investment, or constrained by the fulfillment of an egotistical motivation harbored by a leader is more likely to encounter an abbreviated existence. Company boards and stockholders who understand the value of a positive company culture, face better odds in finding a worthy replacement for retiring CEOs who have positioned their companies with bright futures. Boards and stockholders who dismiss the importance of company culture as a key component, risk future uncertain or unexpected results and outcomes.
Lego, Netflix, and BMW have been cited as companies with positive internal cultures.
How will a leader’s selected approach from the four question areas, alone and in combination, influence potential opportunities, create positive or negative consequences, and produce intended end results?
- Driving Factor. The leader’s driving factor most likely to succeed for a company will be influenced by the norms of an industry, service, or product area; the business model; stated goals and objectives; and the mission statement. A myriad of driving factors exist within the real world, including those examples provided above. They function by driving leaders in their pursuit of both entrepreneurial and not-for-profit organizational end results. As examples, the single most important driving factor in leading a military unit into a battle, at that moment, is most likely winning the battle. The driving factor, in leading St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, should focus on finding new treatments to combat childhood cancer through research and development and in raising the required funds to make this research and development possible.
The driving factor will:
- Motivate, help determine the mindset of, and focus the leader.
- Play an important role in all company decisions.
- Be pivotal in developing, and critical in executing, the mission statement and scope.
- Assist in determining the logical leadership style for a company or organization.
- Be a significant agent in fostering company culture.
- Help in formulating company direction.
- Aid in defining employee focus.
- Shape potential end results, achievements, and accomplishments.
The driving factor, like the mission statement in most cases, will be selected early on by the leader and will most likely stay relatively unchanged over time. However, there are at least three scenarios which might require an adjustment in the driving factor:
- The leader of an established company realizes the driving factor employed by them is not adequately meeting goals, objectives, and directional needs for the company and therefore must be adjusted.
- There is a significant change in the business environment a company is operating within, which requires the company to make a major correction in direction and concurrently spells out the need for a change in the driving factor.
- An immediate crisis or situation which requires an interim or, “in the moment”, adjustment in the driving factor and potentially the leadership style.
A leader harboring a driving factor misaligned with the actual needs of their company is a recipe for disaster. Consider the consequences of a CEO specifically driven to constantly make new predictions, in order to keep themselves in the limelight, regardless of those prediction’s potential for success or their company’s capability to make those predictions come to fruition. Over the long run, no matter how charismatic a leader might be, sooner or later, as their spouted milestones are consistently missed, the leader’s credibility and effectiveness as a visionary will come into question and venture capital will begin to dry up.
- Scope of the mission statement. A properly developed and fully evaluated mission statement should set the direction for the company. It will also position sideboards for the other three outlined leadership approach areas in terms of how best to meet the mission. When the mission statement is developed, questions must be asked and answered to ensure the full potential scope of the mission has been reviewed, evaluated, and factored in, appropriately. From the earlier example, it may not be adequate to set the mission at building the best football team in the United States in order to win the Super Bowl next year. A leader seeking an edge in this highly competitive market might wish to focus the whole organization’s efforts on building a football dynasty over the next 30 years with the expressed intent of winning significantly more Super Bowls than other teams during this timeframe. In addition, the bar could be elevated even further by setting a goal of three consecutive wins in the Super Bowl, which has never been done. Seven teams have won the Super Bowl in back to back seasons with only one team accomplishing this feat twice. Sustainable and adequately defined mission statements must be long-term, flexible, lofty, and potentially outside accepted business niche norms. A leader’s well-defined enhancement to a mission statement will provide purpose to the mission, self-esteem to the employees, and a unifying focused direction for the company. President Kennedy’s requests of NASA to land men on the moon, and return them safely to earth, provided all three – purpose, self-esteem, and a unified direction.
Consider as diverse examples, the differences in scope of working for a small car dealership in rural Oklahoma with a defined mission to serve the local community, in comparison to the scope of mission statements for mega companies such as Amazon or Alibaba. The larger companies possess vastly different potentials to expand into new customer service areas, find ways to reduce the costs of product delivery, or reduce delivery times. Or consider, the potential for negative consequences to occur when an oil refinery mission statement is solely focused on producing profits and revenue, rather than doing so in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. As a company centerpiece, an enhanced, fully scoped out mission statement must articulate unified direction, anticipated end results, goals, objectives, scope, and purpose which will yield top-tier levels of achievement.
- Leadership style. The leadership style selected by a leader, in conjunction with their personality, is critical to results, morale, adaptability, sustainability, retention of staff, atmosphere, and opportunities. The selected style will influence how the organization operates, the norms of the company, the company culture, the structure and effectiveness of management, and both communications and information flow. The chosen leadership style will determine the level of involvement of employees in decision making. One leadership style may be more productive than another, based upon different personality types, different situations, different business environments, different companies, and/or differing objectives. A clear picture running through articles and books on exceptional leaders suggests many of them used different leadership styles successfully, under different situations, based upon the circumstances.
Contrast the leadership styles of a heavy-handed dictatorial, industrial era railroad magnet, to a current day participative CEO charged with providing top quality health care across a huge regional based hospital system. The railroad magnet was initially in a race, almost singly focused on laying tracks for a transcontinental railroad, utilizing hundreds of non-skilled workers spread across the United States. This race conceptually was in direct competition with ruthless competitors trying to beat him to the punch, in creating the ability to generate revenue via a completed transcontinental rail link. The health care CEO, however, has dozens of highly skilled hospital administrators and thousands of highly trained doctors, nurses, and staff dedicated to providing compassionate health care at reasonable prices over potentially several generations of patients. To meet the full potential of their companies, far different leadership styles would be beneficial to the CEOs in these two contrasting situations.
A strong, autocratic leadership style may produce high levels of results and accomplishments in certain circumstances. However, strong leaders, driven by the pursuit of wealth, using autocratic leadership styles, are far less likely to build adaptable and innovative company cultures which will outlast them at the helm. In contrast, leaders with participative styles who engrain intrinsic values into their company cultures will help to build sustainable companies, capable of maintaining top performance levels beyond their stint as the person in charge.
- Company culture. The created company atmosphere or culture will have a direct impact on the company’s success, their ultimate level of achievement, and their potential sustainability. The fostered culture will influence employee self-esteem, morale, commitment, productivity, and longevity with the company. Cultural norms are developed and engrained through intentional or unintentional actions, by example, via communication channels or lack thereof, and/or actual omissions on the part of the leader. If a leader does not “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” every day, why should the employees be willing to buy into the leader’s expected cultural norms. A leader’s actions may produce both positive and negative impacts within the workplace. Positive cultural norms contribute directly to a workforce exhibiting characteristics such as: a can-do attitude, adaptable to change, constantly seeking innovative, inspired, providing an intrinsic value back to society, teamwork oriented, mission oriented, people oriented, and customer service oriented. However, make no mistake, a negative or toxic culture allowed to creep into a company for whatever reason, has the potential to significantly impact both a company’s bottom-line and growth opportunities in numerous ways.
Each of the other three parameters, leader’s driving factor, leadership style, and scope of the mission will work alone, and in unison, to help develop and foster company culture. Each of these parameters, as discussed, have various potential options and nuances. The options selected, and how they are executed, will contribute to the evolution of company culture concepts and norms. Based upon only these three factors, the possible permutations are significant for any given company, punctuating the importance of wise choices on the part of the leader related to the four approach questions.
Contrasting examples of the three parameters upon a company’s created cultural:
- Legendary sports teams driven by profound leaders with an apparent “driving factor” focused 110% on winning, are well recorded. These leaders impart upon their organizations a winning attitude and approach and therefore a winning culture in playing a game for entertainment and revenue production. Contrast this to the leader’s driving factor required for a nonprofit, dedicated to increasing the habitat for a threatened and endangered species. This leader must produce results via the innovative and resourceful culture they create in their efforts to improve the status of the threatened species. Touting of these produced results is one critical factor in the enticement of needed contributions to continue the organization’s work.
- A transactional “leadership style” fits many government agencies. They are often bogged down with laws, administrative direction and manuals, created regulations, and reams of paperwork which create inefficient and inflexible organizations. This results in a culture which involves learning to follow rules, lacks incentives for thinking outside the box, produces low self-esteem, and yields low productivity. Contrast this if you will, with a transformational leadership style in terms of the culture which might develop in a company pushing the exciting cutting edge of a new technology.
- If a successful “company’s mission” is to find cures for cancer or disease and the leader is an inspirational and charismatic researcher with a clear vision, a developed culture which yields self-esteem via each individual employee’s contribution, would be easy to understand. However, in contrast, consider the job of slinging hamburgers for eight hours a day, five days a week, for a fast food chain. Regardless of what the company mission statement claims, the concept of a positive internal culture may ring hollow for those cooks working over a hot grill for minimum wage.
Leaders, when company culture is critical, must fully understand and appreciate how their choices regarding driving factor, leadership style, and scope of the mission statement will contribute to the development and embodiment of a competitive edge producing culture.
Conclusion: every company will face multiple path options in their quest for success. Therefore, great leaders must make important choices in selecting an appropriate driving factor. This driving factor must be melded together with an enhanced unifying mission statement, a leadership style applicable to the company, and an intentionally developed positive company culture. The use of this four-pronged leadership approach will focus leaders in defining direction and intended end results, yielding long-term top-tier accomplishment levels for their company.