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Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Leadership.com, part one

Technology now routinely changes at speeds that were unimaginable just five years ago. People seem to move from job to job at a pace that matches the prolonged technology boom that envelops them. Just when people were beginning to accept that business has an important emotional component, science has apparently pushed itself back to the forefront. So how does leadership fit into a dotcom world?

 Leadership.com must, of course, be different--but it's a difference in details rather than in substance; the difference lies in the amount of emphasis placed on the individual principles and traits of leadership. As long as businesses continue to hire people, the basics will hold. The successful leaders in the 21st century (whenever it officially begins) will be those who recognize the sometimes subtle shifts and make the effort to upgrade their leadership skills.

 This is the first of two articles on leadership.com. In this one, the focus is on the principles of leadership (in brief, what you do); next month, it will be on leadership traits (who you are).

 It's well within the reach of almost all people to change their leadership abilities. Leadership is, after all, the sum of a person's natural abilities and the knowledge and habits that have been acquired, consciously or otherwise. The principles and traits that can be the basis for intentional change and are used in these two articles come from an institution that 10 consecutive annual Harris polls have identified as the most trusted in the United States: the military.

 Before tackling the points one at a time, it's necessary to review how these principles and traits are best used. No one should expect to excel at every point simultaneously, but it's important to assess personal strengths and weaknesses honestly--doing so will allow anyone to continuously work on drawing from the strengths and improving the weaknesses. Conscious improvement, complete with goals and timetables, is the key.

 The three primary ways to benefit from these lists are to use them for self-assessment (perhaps with the help of a blunt friend), use them as the framework when counseling others and use them when assessing others, perhaps in the course of a search for people or specific strengths to emulate (or simply to find fault with a disliked superior what some like to call "learning from a negative example").

 Here are the leadership principles (this particular set is from the U.S. Marine Corps; practically all military organizations have similar lists), along with some ideas for applying these proven ideas to the dotcom world:

* Be technically and tactically proficient. The days when a manager can get away with being a self-proclaimed "technopeasant" are drawing to a close. Dinosaurs make expensive pets. The demands for technical expertise have grown, and employees need industry-specific knowledge, computer literacy and general quality knowledge.

* Know yourself and seek self-improvement. This can begin with an honest look at your ability as a leader--starting with this list and the list of traits to be discussed next month. Where there are weaknesses, improvement plans, complete with specific tasks and schedules, are called for. Where there are strengths, efforts to learn from those strengths and to emphasize them are called for.

* Know your people and look out for their welfare. This is made more difficult by the rapid turnovers common in so many companies today. The leader who makes the effort, however, will find that turnover decreases rapidly. As predicted in John Naisbitt's best-selling book Megatrends nearly two decades ago, a high-tech world requires a high-touch approach for success.

* Keep your people informed. Far better that they learn the truth from their boss than get a version filtered through the Internet. Simple guideline: make all possible information available… after greatly expanding the corporate definition of "possible."

* Set the example. Yes, it's an exciting world, but it can also be a frightening world. The person who would be a leader must tackle all the challenges of a dotcom world too--and in an obvious way so that people can see the example.

* Ensure that the task is understood, supervised and accomplished. In the "good old days" (maybe five years ago?), a lot of initial communications lapses could be overcome by active supervision, thus assuring that the job was accomplished. Today, however, the need to communicate clearly at the outset is paramount since the supervisor may never see the "product" again.

* Train your people as a team. Teams can be wonderfully self-policing, and being a teammate is just another form of leadership. By training his or her people as a team, a leader not only addresses one of the three leadership priorities ("create more leaders") but also raises the odds that the task will be understood and accomplished, as well as mutually supervised.

* Make sound and timely decisions. Today's dotcom leaders must simply accept that everything is moving faster than it did when they started their careers, even if they only started last year. Unfortunately, while the definition of "timely" has changed, the definition of "sound" hasn't. Back to principle No. 1: Knowledge is necessary.

* Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates. This is another point that has grown in relative importance as the independence of individual workers has increased. Only through conscious mentoring in the way of conversations and classes, formal and informal, will each subordinate be willing and able to assume sufficient responsibility in a way that will move the organization forward. A warning: A leader who wants subordinates to assume responsibility must also be prepared to give those subordinates equivalent authority.

* Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities. Yes, the new technology is wonderful, but it can't automatically do everything, and neither can the organization's employees. Stretch goals are fine; goals that break are wasteful of people and resources.

* Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions and the actions of your unit. Even in a dotcom world, a leader still has to step out front. That hasn't changed. The literal face of the prototype leader may have changed from rugged and chiseled to what would have been called geek-like in prior times, but this principle hasn't changed. Note that the leader takes responsibility for the actions of the unit as well as for his or her own actions.


 The principles outlined in this column address "what you do" and are, in fact, easier for most people to address than the topic of next month's leadership.com article: leadership traits. Those address "who you are" and are more personal. After all, it's easier to change what you do than who you are if for no other reason than that the measurement tools for tracking the change are less intimidating.

About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with leadership.com issues as a practitioner as well as an observer and writer/speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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