What makes a great leader? I’m sure we can all come up with many definitions and many characteristics that are important. Leaders listen, know, mentor, coach, help, set vision, and lead. All this is good but what distinguishes the best leaders when compared with other in today’s fast paced professional environment? They don’t wait for anything, they are fast.
Fast to respond
We live in on-line world and there are many situations where being able and willing to respond fast makes all the difference. It is all about the expectation the environment has. Do your customers expect you to respond to a complaint or enquiry within a certain timeframe? Are your employees or peers waiting for your response or guidance to move forward? Is your boss relying on you to provide data in timely manner? In all these situations there are certain expectation that if not met you will be seen as not up to the task. No one will follow you if you are constantly behind.
And to be clear I’m not advocating be available 24×7. I’m talking about setting a clear expectations on what your “personal SLA” (service level agreement) is and they be meticulous on providing it. Take an example from customer support. To keep your customers happy you have to provide a quick first response. You may not necessarily solve the problem in the spot but just the fact that customer understands you are taking the problem seriously and knows what the timeframe of resolution is makes all the difference.
Fast to decide
Being able to make decisions in timely manner is a critical skill of any manager and leader. If you are not able to make decisions fast or not able to make them at all you can hardly expect anyone to follow your lead. How can you lead when you are not able to decide on direction? Decision making skill is one tricky to learn since in many respects it is not about intelligence or knowing the facts. Being able to make a decision is a matter of confidence, energy and being comfortable with making mistakes.
As I wrote in Tough Choice, if you wait to have all the facts you may never make a decision at all. Very often more facts are actually making it more and more difficult to decide. You should also consider what things you really need to decide on and try to limit number of decisions you have to make. You may have experienced it yourself that as the day progresses and you are making decisions your ability to actually make one decreases. To be decide fast you need all the energy you can get and that means delegate some decisions to others and structure your life in a way that you don’t need to make decisions at all. Just take a hint from Barack Obama.
Fast to act
Deciding the direction is a great first step but your leadership image would suffer if you procrastinate and don’t act. If you want to get things done you need to move and if you want to get enough things done you need to move fast. Just consider this example. Your team member comes to you with a question about something that needs cooperation from finance team. You don’t know the answer yourself so you tell him “let me look into this and I will get back to you tomorrow.” And now consider how the whole picture changes if you instead just pick up a phone and on the spot call the finance team and in real time get the answer your team needs.
This type of reaction requires not just a high level of energy and desire to get things done but also sharp focus and the right priorities. The example above should have a follow up conversation with the team member (and possibly the finance team) to make it clear that next time the team is empowered to make the enquiry without your involvement. That is the only way for you to act fast and still focus on the right things.
Fast to change
Part of leadership is the ability to realize when it is the right time for change. You need to understand when your approach doesn’t work anymore and you need to change either yourself, the team, tactics, or strategy. Change is not the most favorite for most human beings and thus we tend to do our best to fight it or avoid it if possible. The best leaders realize that change is inevitable and use it as a competitive weapon. Your ability to act fast and change as needed can keep you at the leading edge of whatever endeavor you pursue.
I love change. I get bored easily and I need to see things moving, changing, growing and ideally in a constant flux. However, everything has its limits. Too much change can eventually tear you and your team down. Living in a constant uncertainty is rather toxic for your mental health. You also need to realize that everyone has a different endurance limit when it comes to rate of change and if you push someone too much you can break him. Change can be stressful and too much stress can lead to burn out. The way to fight it is to have “the right” amount of change and to balance it with more stability in the areas of your life where the change is not required.
When it comes to professional environment you often see matrix organizations where the project work (that is always very stressful and prone to frequent changes) is balanced out by very stable and predictable “line reporting” structure. You can be jumping between projects, having to work with numerous project managers, but you have the stability and trust within the line organization or stable HR team, or at least your family to keep you sane.
So next time you feel like you have hard time others following you ask yourself “why should they?” And answer to yourself: “Because I’m fast. Fast to respond, fast to decide, fast to act, and fast to change.”
Do you believe it is important for leaders to be fast? Or would you say that more important is to be slower but focus on the right things and have the mindset that everything has its time?
Originally posted at LinkedIn.