Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Elon Musk…Business leaders like them have fascinated many of us with their amazing leadership qualities and the way they have transformed the landscape of their sector. They inspire us to do great work. What is it about them that set them apart as leaders? What qualities can we cultivate to emulate them – to be the best in our field, to lead innovation, to build enduring organizations of positive change or to win universal respect?
Being a leader is tough. It takes years of practice. As lofty as the success of these leaders seems today; their journey was long and started at a humble origin. They had to overcome many challenges. They had to balance a number of talents, some inherent and some they acquired with practice.
Broadly speaking, they each embody a unique mix of leadership qualities such as competence, ability to grow their business, passion and emotional intelligence among others. How they used them to move ahead and what drives them defines their leadership style.
This article highlights 6 key leadership qualities that you can hone to become not just a better leader but a well-rounded and self-aware person.
To learn about them let’s turn to the 6 most renowned leaders who have made an indelible mark in the business world and our minds.
Communicate your vision effectively – Sir Richard Branson, Virgin
At 16, Richard Branson dropped out of high school to start his first business, a youth mouthpiece called Student. Its modest success helped him begin a mail-order record business which then kick-started the famous Virgin records. He didn’t stop there. Going contrary to the advice of experts and competitors, he expanded from the music business to start a whole gamut of businesses, from airlines to comics. As of 2014, Virgin conglomerate diversified into a whopping 400 businesses, some successful, some not.
Even with extensive diversification, all Virgin businesses had one common purpose, to enhance people’s lives. Branson believes in having a coherent overall vision for his organization with a targeted strategy for each business.
However, he also believes that when one leads a group of businesses, one must refrain from imposing control from the top. How does he manage to have each of his companies work in tune with the way he envisioned?
Branson successfully tapped his communication skills to impress his organization’s vision on his employees and stakeholders. He communicates his business goals by sharing his enthusiasm and stories about his journey. He supports them strongly such that everyone in the organization feels proud to be connected with the Virgin business.
With decentralization as a strategy, he expects them to share their feedback on his vision and business goals by actually attaining the vision and goals. He empowers the management of each of his companies to work with its own strong sense of purpose and distinctive vision.
Read about the secrets of Sir Richard Branson for success in Business and Life.
Take home message:
Good leaders make sure their people understand their vision for the organization. They devote time to share their goals and objectives with their people and the expectations that they have of them.
Finding a way to effectively communicate your vision is a vital leadership quality; to get your people excited and be on the same page as you. The immediate benefit is that the employees know what they need to achieve and in the long run, the organization grows in line with the leaders’ vision long after they are gone.
Productive communication also involves knowing when to be all ears and asking thoughtful questions. Create a platform where your people can share their ideas on how they can achieve what you envisage for your organization. This shows that you care about your employees’ contributions.
Think forward and take risks– Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Biocon
As the only female brewmaster in India in the early 70s, Kiran Mazumdar could not find any company in India willing to offer the job to a woman.
However, her drive and ambition impressed the owner of Irish firm Biocon biochemicals. With training from him and a seed capital of 10 thousand rupees, she started Biocon India in the garage of her rented home in 1978. Biocon made enzymes and within a year it became the only Indian company to export to the US and Europe.
“I wanted a boundless, non-hierarchical kind of company,” she says. “That kind of stuff really appealed to me, and I did it all the way.” Mazumdar-Shaw believes it was crucial to “be patient and challenge that proof of concept.”
The first 20 years saw Mazumdar-Shaw fighting one challenge after another to get the right capital, resources, people, equipment, and even credibility. Undeterred by failures and hurdles, she continued to work on innovations that she believed had transformational value. In the 90s, she set up Syngene which focused on research and development and later on added clinical trials.
In 2004, Biocon turned its focus to biopharmaceuticals and became the first biotechnology company to go public. Today Biocon is making tremendous strides in research on cancer, diabetes, and even outreach for primary health.
Her groundbreaking efforts in biotechnology have brought national (Padma Bhushan in 2005) and international recognition for Biocon and the Indian biotechnology industry as a whole.
Take home message:
The ability to come up with innovative ideas and the wisdom to recognize opportunities that create significant value can propel your business forward. Creativity is crucial for your growth as a leader. So is the belief in your vision. It enables you to not only grow yourself as a leader but also enable your organization to create value for society.
Facing failure is inevitable in your journey but recognizing which failures are transient and which are permanent will help you become resilient enough to move forward and continue to take necessary risks.
Many a times, it’s not just more hard work but taking a different approach altogether that takes you forward.
Enable your employees to grow – Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn
Jeff Weiner came to the helm of LinkedIn in 2008 after a long stint at Yahoo. He met each employee individually, who, at that time, came up to 330. He wanted to learn what drove them and know their strengths and weaknesses.
He asks prospective employees what their dream job is. The clarity in the response helps him decide how capable and motivated that person can be as an employee. If they say they would like his job, he puts them to work. He believes that any person with a clear awareness of what they want to do in the long term is the kind of person any leader would want to groom especially when they have the talent and the aptitude to back it.
Although LinkedIn was founded in 2002, it was under Weiner’s leadership that LinkedIn completed grew to have over 14000 employees and became one of the most-used professional networking platforms in the world. In May 2020, Jeff Weiner moved on to become the executive chairperson. Weiner chose his first hire and closest colleague as the next CEO.
Take home message:
Good leaders empower their employees and teammates to achieve a position where they can succeed. They support the development of their strengths and look for ways to temper their weaknesses. They give their team opportunities for personal development as they know that as their contribution becomes more significant, they also become more competent and valuable.
Foster a strong employee commitment by showing interest in their aspirations and strengths. Look for people who are keen to grow. Have regular conversations with them to see how they are doing and to convey that you value their contribution. When you invest in their growth they feel reassured. A competent and motivated employee is the best asset an organization can have.
Adaptability – Jack Ma, Alibaba
Jack Ma is no stranger to failure. He took 3 years to pass the Chinese university entrance tests. He also applied ten times to study at Harvard Business School and got rejected every single time. After graduation, he faced rejection for all the 30 jobs he applied for. At KFC, 23 out of the 24 applicants were accepted. He wasn’t.
In 1994, he first heard about the internet and started his first company. In 1999 he founded Alibaba, a B2B e-commerce site. Even when he started Alibaba, he heard a lot of no’s, from venture capitalists and friends alike.
Repeated failures prepared him for the rigors of the business world. Ma believes hardships and mistakes have a lot to teach. Tenacious and focused, he knows how to chase the goal he wants to achieve. That has rubbed off on to his team as well.
When Ali Baba went public in 2014, it amassed 25 billion dollars, the largest initial public offering ever. Today, the company is valued at about a whopping 400 billion dollars.
Interestingly, Ma hasn’t written a word of code or made a direct sale to a customer.
Take home message:
Every leader who has stood the test of time has mastered the ability to persevere, even when things go wrong. There will be many times when things go out of hand or veer off the plan. You may not know what to do next. Through it all, is important to maintain your belief in yourself and see things through till the end.
Leadership calls for being adaptable as the situation demands. When you encounter obstacles, big or small, you will need to be prepared to pause, reassess the situation, and decide a new course of action. As you embrace the ever-changing nature of business and respond to challenges with a flexible attitude, you will be able to inspire that same willingness to adapt in those around you.
Push for learning – Elon Musk, Tesla
Elon Musk’s revolutionary ideas and unrelenting passion to push the boundaries of technology for greater good make him a one of his kind visionary leader
Musk started off with a dual graduation in physics and economics but he left his PhD in energy physics and material science to launch an internet start-up. Yet he started companies that spearhead advances in internet banking, solar power, space travel, high-speed transportation, and artificial intelligence.
His exponential success can be attributed to a habit of avid reading from a very young age.
He surrounds himself with people who are the best in their fields and never misses an opportunity to quiz them for hours.
According to Jim Cantrell, an aerospace consultant who worked at SpaceX, Musk actually taught himself space technology by reading textbooks and talking to industry heavyweights. He believes Musk’s genius blend of entrepreneurship, curiosity, and motivation will make him a true pioneer.
Musk’s passion for applied learning is coupled with respect for feedback from his employees irrespective of where they stand in the organization. “How can you expect workers to devote themselves to your mission if they’re not permitted to have a say in operations?” he remarks.
Take home message:
Good leaders create a thriving culture of continuous learning and growth. Best way to go about that is to be a good example for employees by constantly seeking new knowledge yourself. Constant learning promotes innovation. When both the leader and the employees are looking to push their boundaries to create something new, the entire organization will always be growing.
Competence to inspire confidence – Steve Jobs, Apple
Steve Jobs was far from being the perfect leader. Persuasive, harsh, and dominant to a fault, there were few who could stand up to him. Yet, he commanded the kind of loyalty from his employees and customers that few can match.
When he was ousted from Apple in 1986, 5 employees joined him to start NEXT Inc. Interestingly, the software developed by NEXT led him back to Apple. From then till his passing, he led Apple to develop one path-breaking creation after another. MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad have changed the way the world communicates or consumes music. His contributions to Pixar and association with Disney are legendary.
His vision for design and passion for perfection was deeply imbued in every employee at Apple. He won their faith not because he founded the company or because of his nature. It was his competence, especially in product design and marketing that sealed their belief in him and inspired them to create superior Apple products.
Take home message
As much as leaders are facilitators, they also need to have deep knowledge of their field. It is important that they are aware of what is happening in their field, facts, figures, and best practices.
When you know enough to have a clear vision and firmly believe in it, your team will buy into it as well. Your team relies on you to have sound technical skills and the solid judgment to make correct decisions for the organization. When the team is secure in their belief in your abilities and your leadership qualities, they can be inspired to achieve greater heights.
The essence of leadership is the ability to map out the best course to success. It can be with a team, a company, or even for you. While, these are some of the leadership qualities that have made inspiring leaders, working on your strengths will also go a long way to help you become one.