Route to iconic leadership

August 24, 2020

The transformation of leaders into icons has much to do with what they don’t do rather than what they do. While it is fashionable for leaders to say ‘yes’ to a number of things, it is only those who make it a habit to say ‘no’ to many things that become icons.

According to Warren Buffet, the investment guru, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” He explained that by trying to be nice to people who bombard them for one favour or the other, leaders who say ‘yes’ to people are unable to devote the best of their time and other resources to those activities that are critical to their success. So, instead of soaring like an eagle, they only manage to perch on the tree top.

But becoming an icon is beyond saying ‘no’ to people. Here are some things iconic leaders say ‘no’ to.

They say ‘no’ to the urgent crowding out the important

Most leaders assume office with specific plans on what they intend to accomplish while in office. As a matter of fact, before a leader is appointed in most companies, he is asked to make presentations on what he hopes to achieve during his tenure. However, soon after getting into office, more often than not, the leader is bogged down by routine issues that come up as urgent matters. So, instead of channeling the bulk of his time and energy to the realization of the goal he set for himself before his assumption of office, he fritters precious resources on issues that can be handled by his subordinates.

Great leaders say ‘no’ to the urgent crowding out the important. They stay focused on the important issues and do not allow their success to be hindered by the misdirection of time and energy. They never lose sight of the big picture. They ensure that everything that they get involved in contributes in a specific manner towards the actualization of the vision they have carved for themselves or their organizations. Whatever does not contribute to the vision is not important, so they avoid such. By doing this, they avoid getting sucked into trivial issues and have ample time for vital tasks.

No leader whose focus is the routine can become an icon.

They say ‘no’ to good ideas

The world is filled with good ideas but good ideas don’t change the world, only great ideas do. To become an icon, the leader must learn to distinguish between the two. A leader who pays attention to every good idea pushed to him would hardly have time for any other thing. One of the skills and attributes that stand great leaders out is their ability to identify opportunities when still far away. They see those opportunities before they become obvious. In the same way, they have a knack for identifying ideas that would not work. However, in their bid to be nice to people, some leaders say ‘yes’ to ideas that they are not convinced would work. But at the end of the day, they do more harm than good because not only would they have wasted their time and other resources, they would also have wasted the time and other resources of the ideas’ proponents.

Great leaders waste no time telling those who come to them with good ideas their true feelings about the proposition. Without putting down their efforts, they let them understand that more work still needs to be done to make the ideas great. To become iconic, leaders must learn to be dispassionate. Those who are controlled by their feelings and emotions will always trail those who are unemotional and decisive.

They say ‘no’ to sub-optimal performance

Great leaders are great mentors and great supporters of those they supervise but they do not condone mediocrity. The undoing of many career people are their over-pampering superiors who shy away from telling them the truth about their performance so as not to hurt their feelings. But what they try to avoid is what happens eventually when the system can no longer cope with their sub-optimal performance and has to let them go. According to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, if a subordinate is surprised by the time the organisation resolves to let go of him, his supervisor is at fault because if he had been doing a good job of mentoring and managing the subordinate, pointing out his areas of weakness, he would have known where he stood in the thinking of the organization. If well managed, an employee should have no doubt about what his superiors think of his performance.

When leaders say ‘no’ to suboptimal performance, they put their reports on their toes. Knowing that nothing but the best is approved by the leader, the subordinates put up their best performance all the time. Not only does this improve the fortune of the organization, it also improves the self-worth of the subordinates.

Some leaders can’t say ‘no’ to sub-optimal performance because of their closeness to those they supervise. While it is essential to create an atmosphere of conviviality in the workplace, the leader must maintain a dignified distance from his subordinates to avoid the erosion of his authority over them. Though it is important for a leader to be close enough to the subordinates to inspire them, he must also be distant enough to challenge them when they are not doing enough and reprimand them when they cross the redline.

They say ‘no’ to unethical dealings

With enormous power and influence, every leader comes under temptation. The test of leadership is really to say ‘no’ to unethical activities. No leader can become an icon if he keeps excusing his excesses. The greatest temptations leaders face are lucre, coitus and favouritism. A leader who is of the opinion that he can get away with any of these has set a ceiling on his leadership. No matter how good he is, his other qualities would be blurred by these downsides of his.

Leadership is a trust. It is only those who keep the trust privately and publicly that become icons. Leaders who betray the trust lose their sense of value. Once that happens, they either stall or slide. But more often than not they suffer the latter.

That is what happened to Mr Tafa Balogun, former Inspector General, who was convicted for stealing public money and taking bribes.

When he was appointed the Inspector General of the Police in March 2002, Balogun, who was described as a ‘Super Cop’, promised to transform the police. Nigerians’ expectation from the IGP was huge because of his academic background and his track record of performance. Balogun had studied Political Science at the University of Lagos before earning a law degree from the University of Ibadan. He had served in different parts of the country and Nigerians expected him to start the process of birthing a new police force. He raised the hope of many Nigerians when, shortly after his appointment, he organized training programmes for officers and rank of the police to improve their performance. But the expectation of an improved police force short-lived when towards the end of 2004, there were reports that the IGP was involved in cases of massive corruption and bribe taking from politicians. He was removed as IGP in January 2005, tried for corruption and was convicted.

Tafa Balogun’s undoing was inability to say ‘no’ to unethical conduct.

The say ‘no’ to chest thumping

One characteristic that transforms leaders to icons is their aversion to complacency. Great leaders never get to a point that they engage in chest-thumping or back-slapping. They see the accomplishment of a feat as the motivation to aim higher. So, they keep setting higher goals each time they achieve a set goal. That way, they stay motivated, inspired and challenged. They see the accomplishment of a goal as a stepping stone to greater feats because they know that if they relax, the feat they are currently celebrating would be rubbished by others.

Sony’s slip

Sony was already a global brand before it came up with its Walkman on July 1, 1979. This device, which allowed individuals to enjoy music of their choice wherever they were and anytime they wanted, revolutionized the electronics industry globally and played a major role in pushing Sony to the fore as the leading electronics company as the product sold over 400million copies.

The Walkman was developed at the instance of Sony co-founder, Masaru Ibuka. Ibuka, a music enthusiast, loved to go about with Sony TC-D5, so as to be able to enjoy music wherever he was. When he had to make some long flights in 1979, he requested one of Sony engineers, Norio Ohga, to develop something smaller and more portable than TC-D5 so that he could enjoy music on the flights.

Working with Sony Pressman, a portable, monaural tape recorder, Ohga was able to design the Walkman to enable Ibuka enjoy his choice of music on his trips. Thus was born the Walkman.

But rather than build on this feat which earned it a fortune, Sony embarked on a long chest-thumping binge. By the time it returned to reality, Apple had built on the Walkman to develop the iPod. Thus, despite giving the world its first mobile stereo music device, Sony failed to move to the next stage. Apple beat Sony to it by coming up with the iPod.

Although Sony is still running, it is still trying to catch up with Apple that now dominates the industry Sony once had under its armpit. Complacency is always costly.


 Last line

Saying ‘no’ to the easy path is the route to iconic leadership.


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