Leadership: Finding the Best, Being the Best


What does it really mean?  Are you a leader?  Are you seeking a leader for your organization?  How do you know if you are performing as a top leader?  How do you know if you’ve found the best leader for your business?  When is it time to find a new corporate leader?

With the economy spinning in all directions, the Board of Directors for corporations and nonprofit organizations turn to the C-suite executives, often in desperation, for “the answer” to rising overhead, decreasing profits, falling customer satisfaction rates, drastically reduced donations, and frightened employees who may be discretely searching for new career opportunities.  This, in turn, may result in a discrete search for a new CEO, President, or COO, with the hope that someone new can provide a fresh, innovative perspective which will more quickly advance the goals of the corporation.

Leaders, on the other hand, who seek a chair within the C-suite, face an entirely different set of concerns:  How, in a 2-page resume’ or a short phone call, can s/he convince a hiring authority of her extraordinary talents?  Does she actually have the outstanding leadership skills needed, or is she fooling herself?

Evaluating Leadership

Whether it is a Board of Directors or an individual, properly evaluating leadership is critical to success.

The Corporate Evaluation

Before deciding that it’s time to find a new CEO in a last-ditch effort to turn things around, it may be a better investment to evaluate the current corporate leader from a different perspective.  Most often, evaluations are carried out by the analysis of spread sheets, charts, and complex mathematical formulas, none of which provide insight into the human characteristics of the person being evaluated.

Typically, there are less than half a dozen performance indicators — all of them financially based — which determine whether a Board can justify the compensation package it provides for the CEO (or President, COO, etc.)  Arguably, this approach is the result of the autonomy of the CEO.  S/he must have full autonomy, within the applicable guidelines, to make decisions; otherwise, by definition, s/he wouldn’t be a leader.

Still, it does not make sense to use the autonomy argument as an excuse to overlook and ignore all other aspects of leadership performance.  Why?  Because by the time a Board decides it’s time to ask for a CEO’s resignation, the damage is done.

Accordingly, if a multi-dimensional evaluation is not conducted, a Board of Directors may mistakenly cut loose (or keep) its corporate leader when the opposite decision is more prudent.

To get a more accurate picture of a CEO’s performance without singular reliance on the operating and financial metrics (which can be manipulated) as measured against strategy, CEO and author Stephen P. Kaufman recommends the following approach for getting performance feedback from a Board of Directors:

  • Leadership: How well do you motivate and energize your organization?
  • Strategy: Is it being effectively implemented? Is the company aligned behind it?
  • People management: Are you putting the right people in the right jobs and establishing a succession pipeline?
  • Operating metrics: Are key metrics such as sales, profits, and customer satisfaction heading in the right direction?
  • External relationships: How well do you engage with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders?

By using this 5-prong approach to performance evaluation of corporate leadership, potential problems can be spearheaded before damage results.  A leader can reshape his approach, as needed.

Communication & Human Behavior – A Critical Consideration

Notice that 3 of the 5 categories set out by Stephen Kaufman deal directly with human relations!  Leadership, People Management, and External Relationships are each dependent upon a CEO’s ability to communicate effectively, and to engage in effective, successful relationships.  They have nothing to do with the CEO’s strategic planning skills!  And regardless of how much of a visionary the CEO may be, without the ability to communicate that vision, s/he will fail.

Presuming that one possesses the necessary vision required at the executive level, to be a good leader, then, means first and foremost one must be a good communicator with good relationship skills.  And, to be a superior leader, one must have superior communication and relationship skills.  All the rest is essentially the ability to use and apply critical thinking skills.

Excellent relationship skills require that a leader be able to effectively communicate.  One can be a good communicator without the ability to enter into successful relationships, but one cannot claim to entertain excellent relationships if s/he lacks communication skills.  And, to have superior relationship skills, one must have a keen understanding of human behavior.

In researching for this article, I found a great list of qualities that are needed at the senior most executive level of leadership: the CEO.  As articulated by “WWS” on ww-success.com, there are 22 characteristics.  It’s a great list:

  1. Secure in self
  2. In control of attitude
  3. Tenacious
  4. Continuously Improving
  5. Honest and Ethical
  6. Thinking before talking
  7. Original
  8. Publicly modest
  9. Aware of style
  10. Gutsy / A little wild
  11. Humorous
  12. A tad theatrical
  13. Detail oriented
  14. Good at their job and willing to lead
  15. Fighters for their people
  16. Willing to admit mistakes, yet unapologetic
  17. Straightforward
  18. Nice
  19. Inquisitive
  20. Competitive
  21. Flexible
  22. Good Storytellers

Notice again:  The overwhelming majority of these characteristics define the expert communicator, aka “the superior human behaviorist”.

Knowing how best to communicate, and being keenly aware of what others communicate to you, is critical to leadership.  It is, by far, the overwhelming predictor of how well a leader will perform.  If s/he has superior communication and behavioral analysis skills, the desired financial and operational metrics should follow. Conversely, unacceptable metrics are very often the result not of bad strategy, but of poor communication and a lack of a deep understanding of the “human behavior element.”

The Self-Assessment of Leadership Skills

If you believe yourself to be a leader — and particularly if you offer your leadership skills for consideration by hiring authorities — it is imperative that you carefully, honestly, and accurately assess your skills.  Having an MBA, for example, may set you apart from many who compete with you for the same CEO vacancy, but how does it compare to someone who is a proven, experienced, and expert communicator and behaviorist?

While there will always be the misguided Board of Directors that values a Master’s degree or the PhD. over someone who is a master-communicator but lacks the alphabet soup at the end of his name, YOU — a leader — need to understand that the only way to be successful in an executive leadership role in the long-term is to constantly seek to improve and expand your communication and behavior analysis skills.

Communication and Behavior Analysis Skills

Behavioral Analysis Unit

Have you ever watched Criminal Minds, the drama about an FBI sub-group known as the “BAU”, or “Behavioral Analysis Unit”?  Each episode, a team of behavior analysis experts sets out to identify an “unsub,” (aka unidentified subject) who is most often on a serial killing spree.

Without objective evidence like fingerprints or DNA to identify the bad guy, these folks figure out whodoneit by intensely analyzing and evaluating behavior.  They watch the body language of a suspect.  They look at small hand gestures, eye movements, and voice inflection.  They evaluate the clothes, hair style, vocabulary, type of vehicle — anything that is at all related to the suspect.  They scrutinize the environment for telling signs.  From their behavioral analysis, they develop a “profile” of the “unsub,” one that is nearly always spot-on.

And they have about a 99% success rate, give or take.

Master Behaviorist

Another television drama, The Mentalist, relies on the same behavioral analysis science to likewise catch the bad guy, this time by a police consultant, “Jane,” who used to travel with a carnival and con customers out of their hard-earned money.  His ability to expertly read another person always gives him the advantage, and the crime is solved.

But, this is fiction, right?  Yes — but it is also a very serious scientific discipline, one from which an executive leader will seriously benefit.  The ability to “read” someone with whom you are negotiating a multimillion dollar contract, for example, gives you an edge.  Being able to feel confident in whether someone is being truthful is a significant big-business advantage.  Knowing when your subordinate leaders are unhappy in spite of their proclamations to the contrary puts a CEO two steps ahead.

Executive leadership communication skills, on the other hand, are more about combining one’s ability to listen with one’s ability to adequately articulate a message, whether orally or in writing.  It involves a careful balance: being “the boss” without being bossy, controlling an organization without being controlling, and the fine use of diplomacy in all things, at all times.

Thus, in your evaluation of your own leadership skills, your focus must be on your ability to communicate and analyze behavior at a level that exceeds the average bear.  No matter how many business courses you take, regardless of the number of strategic planning and critical thinking books you read, without communication and behavior analysis expertise, you will not be an effective executive level leader.

When an executive leader couples superior communication skills with expert behavioral analysis skills, it is a winning combination.  It allows a leader to cross into new industries, regardless of her professional history, because these skills translate into winning leadership skills across the board, without exception.  Accordingly, a really good leader should allow himself to explore industries that are new to him, and a Board of Directors should always entertain a candidate with superior communication and behavioral skills even if s/he lacks the applicable industry experience.  In this way, excellent leaders can be matched with promising corporations and organizations; a win-win!

~Lynda C. Watts

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6 Responses to Leadership: Finding the Best, Being the Best

  1. Pingback: What Are You Attracting? | Leadership, Behaviors, and Success

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  4. mkazazis says:

    I enjoyed this piece and will review some of the others you have written.

    The Harvard Business Review just published an article that takes a good look at the skills (mostly soft) required by those at the executive table (e.g., CEO, CIO, CFO, etc.) and how they’ve greatly evolved just over the last few years. For those interested in advancing their careers, this would be a good piece to review:

    Mike K.

    • Lynda says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Mike. (And thanks for the Follow on Twitter!)

      Great link you provided (which links to the HBR article). Unfortunately, only subscribers to Harvard Business Review can read the entire download unless they purchase the article. But, the “free” portion is interesting nevertheless.

      I like your website, btw. It’s the 3rd time I’ve been to it today, each time for an unrelated reason. Keep up the good work!

  5. Pingback: Q&A: A Follow-Up to the Start-Up | Grown-up Living: Careers & More

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