My 4-3-2 Plan was originally written to present to a group of MBA students for an event honoring “Powerful Women CEOs.” The event theme led me to open the speech with my comments on power versus strength. For more background you can reference Chapter 9 of my book Inspiring Confidence in Progress. The following is an adaptation of that Chapter.
First, I want to say that I never think of myself as powerful – I think the word strong would be more appropriate. To be a leader requires personal inner strength.
I am going to share with you some ideas I have on some key areas that could serve as a guide to anyone who wants to take on the responsibility of being a leader.
Let’s agree that people will follow a bad leader as well as a good leader. There are numerous current public leaders I could site as examples – and I will let you use your imaginations to fill in the names.
I want to share a personal experience. One day a few years ago, I accidentally turned into the sixth lane of Broward Boulevard at the intersection of Broward and Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At this intersection, Broward has six lanes going east and only two lanes going west. I turned into the sixth lane, by mistake. Incredibly, five cars followed me, proving without a doubt people will follow a bad leader! So, a strong leader is not necessarily a good leader.
I am going to share with you 4 Qualities, 3 Abilities and 2 Principles that have been important to my success as CEO of O.R. Colan Associates, LLC and our affiliate company, ORC Utility & Infrastructure Land Services, LLC. I call this my 4-3-2 Plan for Successful Leadership. These are not taught in any business degree program, but you can nurture them in yourself.
The 4 Qualities are Perseverance, Optimism, Intuition and Empathy.
Perseverance is the difference between success and failure. Perseverance is more important than any other quality in a strong leader. I have always said that our biggest successes have often come five minutes after I was ready to give up. The key is not giving up.
Optimism is the second most important quality. Henry Ford said it best, when he said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Intuition is the third quality. If you are an intuitive decision maker, it will be a plus. This has been very helpful for me because a CEO (or any leader) must be able to make a decision based on limited information. A timely decision is more important than a perfect decision.
Empathy is the fourth quality. People skills are the most important skills you can have, because most issues you will have as a business owner or leader will be around people issues, not technical issues. A good leader will take responsibility when things go wrong and give credit to others when they go right.
We all find ourselves in frustrating situations or relationships with difficult people. You can change those experiences by controlling how you react. The only person you can change is yourself and, sometimes, that is enough to change how others interact with you.
The 3 Abilities are the ability to accept responsibility, the ability to accept risk and the ability to focus on the future.
Ability to accept responsibility. Do you accept responsibility when things go wrong and give credit to others when things go right? Some managers want to take credit when things go right and blame others when things go wrong. This is a seriously limiting deficiency. Management and leadership are all about accepting responsibility for the actions of your team. If you can’t give credit to your team when things go right and accept responsibility when things go wrong, then your ability to take on leadership responsibility is limited.
Ability to accept risk. You must be a risk-taker if you want to be successful. As a business owner or a leader of any organization or group, you must be willing to take risks to pursue your vision.
I once said to someone that I have no interest in gambling. I have always found casino gambling boring. As soon as I said this, I realized that being a business owner is the biggest gamble you can take, because every job you bid is a gamble and the stakes are high.
Ability to focus on the future. A leader must have the patience and vision to plan for projects that will not be completed for many years.
Your ability to be promoted to high-level positions in your career will depend upon your time span. How long into the future is your timeline for work? Are you more comfortable with a job that is repetitive every 30 days? Are you comfortable with a project that has a completion date two years from now? Are you comfortable managing a project with a 5 or 10-year schedule? According to Elliott Jacques, who identified how timespan is correlated to levels of work ability, a manager has a two-year time span while a CEO must be able to have the vision, patience and perseverance to plan for projects that will not be completed for five or more years.
If you are a parent, then you know that you invest much of your creative energy into a project (your child) where you may not see the results of your efforts for two decades or more. Don’t underestimate the value this experience can bring to your leadership potential.
Finally, there are 2 Guiding Principles.
Never make a decision based on fear. If you use the word “fear” to justify any action or refusal to act, then you should rethink your decision. For example, “I’m afraid my team won’t go along with this new idea,” is not a good reason not to proceed. If you hear yourself using the word “fear” in your justification of any action, then back up and rethink it. Most people never accomplish even a fraction of what they are capable of, because they are afraid of failure, of the cost, of what people may say, of change – or because they are afraid of success.
Avoid negative energy. If you indulge in negative energy, you will not have enough energy to be a leader.
This last point has been one of the more important realizations in the development of my career. Yet, the ability to refuse to participate in negative energy was learned in daily experiences. Do you fume when you have to wait in traffic or in a line at the grocery store? If so, then you are allowing negative energy to drain you of your energy resources. If you are going to be a strong leader, then you will need all of the energy you can find. You can make a rational decision to not allow negative energy to drain you. Try it the next time you are caught in traffic or have to wait in a long line at the grocery store. You will find lots of opportunities to work on this quality!
A formal education can train you in skills that you can use in your career. You will need these skills, but to be a strong leader, you will need to consciously work on your own set of qualities—which may include some of those that I have listed as important to my success. Don’t undervalue your personal qualities, which—like mine—were probably learned outside of school and the workplace.
Changes in the business world are moving so fast that any formal education program will never be able to prepare you completely for what you need to be a leader today. Your degree is an indicator of your ability to learn, but you must continue to learn every day. If you have the opportunity to become a member of VISTAGE (previously TEC), I would strongly recommend doing so to any business leader. I have participated in a monthly VISTAGE group since 1995, and this has been my single greatest source of continuing education as a CEO. Other business forums are offered by YPO and TCI, to name a few.
I am honored to share these thoughts on leadership with you and I hope that my comments will be useful to you as you strive to become a better leader.