Defining Leadership: What It Is; What It Is Not.

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Defining Leadership

What really is leadership? I can provide several definitions from great authors and leaders, but I will like to work to the basics, looking at its root. Leadership is ‘leader’-‘ship’, i.e. the ship of a leader. What is a ‘ship’? It is a means of transportation from one place to another. So, what does it mean to ‘lead’? The noun meaning of ‘lead’ according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to be the first, to be in a position of advantage, to be in the forefront or ahead, to be top or take initiative and the verb meaning of ‘lead’ is to serve as a channel, direct a course or to guide on a way, especially by going in advance or forward. A ‘leader’ on the other hand (hold on, before you reach for your dictionary), simply put, is someone who satisfies the above context. To piece the definitions together, leadership means:

  • the means of moving ahead
  • to direct or chart a course to be the first or to move forward
  • to serve as a channel to place others in a position of advantage

Now that we have established the meaning of leadership, let’s discuss what leadership is and what it is not. I will use the elimination approach and start with what leadership is not.

What Leadership Is Not

  • Leadership is not a reward for long service – While consulting for several companies in the past, I have seen this error made severally. There seems to be an assumption that since an employee has been in an organisation for a long time, the logical next step is for them to lead. Long service, although may be an advantage to a leader, it is not a requirement for leadership and should not be the sole reason for rewarding people with leadership role.
  • Leadership is not a special trait that only a select few possess. It is not inborne; it can be developed. Yes, the charisma may come more easily for some, but leadership is more than that. There are training courses for leadership, you can be mentored/coached to lead, and you can learn to lead from other great leaders. Leadership is not for a select few, anyone can learn to lead.
  • Leadership is not just about influence. That you have great charisma and can sway people with your words or style or get them to submit to you doesn’t necessarily make you a leader. Influence is beneficial in leadership when combined with other attributes. Influence alone does not make you a leader. While I am on this table, let me shake it well, that you are a social media influencer does not make you a leader. We shouldn’t misconstrue these things.
  • Leadership is not superiority; it doesn’t mean you are the smartest person in the room. Superior talent, skill, network, qualification, etc. does not make you a leader. That you are a leader, does not mean you are superior – you do not become a leader because you are superior neither do you become superior because you are now a leader.
  • Leadership is not a personality type. No one personality type is best for leadership. Your being introverted or extroverted does not place you in a better position to be a leader.
  • Leadership is not about instilling fear in people. While good leadership comes with reverence, the leader does not start out with that objective. In fact, fear and reverence are two different things. When people flee at your presence or tremble at the thought of you, it is no longer leadership!
  • Leadership does not mean been exalted, somewhat like been on a pedestal where you cannot be reached, addressed or even corrected. Leadership does not mean closing the access that others have to you. It doesn’t mean you are above the law.
  • Leadership does not mean using others to achieve your goals. I have saved this one for last because I know some people will raise their eye brows here. You thought leadership was about setting goals and marshalling the team to achieve them. That will make you a good manager, not necessarily a leader. Sorry to burst your bubble.

I have identified what leadership is not so that you can eliminate them from your mind set and begin to rethink leadership.

What Leadership Is

Going by the definition of leadership provided in this article, I will use the analogy of the ship. I will liken the ship to the organisation or entity, the captain to the leader, the people on board the ship to the followers. There are three primary responsibilities that every leader must excel at:

  1. Clarify the Destination: I consider this the most important job of the leader because every other activity carried out by the leader revolves around this. If the vision is not properly crafted and communicated, the ship will be headed nowhere. There will be confusion, resources will be wasted – you don’t know what’s needed or how much is needed, etc. A properly crafted vision must be one that is shared and one that advances the collective. It may emanate from the leader, but everyone on the ship must buy into it. Otherwise, one follower will reach for one sail to increase the speed and the other will be trying to make a turn at the same time. What you have is chaos, and eventually, destruction of the ship. The destination or vision must be clear, shared and well communicated. Clarifying and communicating the vision also helps ensure you have the right people on the ship. The people on the ship are not taking a jolly ride, they must be people who also desire to go to the planned destination. It shouldn’t just be the leader’s vision, it should be everyone’s vision.
  • Chart the Course: There is a Yoruba adage that means, there are several entry points into the market. When a clear picture of the destination or vision has been shared, the leader must chart the course to the destination. How do we get there? in what state do we want to get there? when must we get there? Craft a strategy, develop a plan to get there. The plan must be clear; clear enough for everyone to grasp it without you being there. It shouldn’t be your plan; it should be our plan.
  • Sail, adjust, sail: Once the vision is clear, and the strategic plan has been adopted, all that’s left is to sail. Harness the collective capacity of the people and sail. Sail according to plan, sail towards the vision. The winds will blow, course-correct and continue sailing. If circumstances make you lose sight of the vision, review the vision now and again to strengthen your focus and ignite passion. Keep inspiring the people to keep their gaze on the vision and fully apply themselves and you will arrive the destination soon enough.

Three simple responsibilities, you may say, but the establishment and sustainability of organisations rest on the leader’s ability to skilfully execute them. Successful leadership requires trust, heart and grit – I call them the pillars of leadership. I will talk about them in the next publication.

Are you currently in a leadership role? Do a quick self-assessment on how well you are faring on these responsibilities. Also check yourself against what leadership is not. If you see areas that you are doing well, give yourself a pat on the back. If you identify areas of improvement, pen them down and seek ways to close the gap. We need more leaders. Leaders who will help us see a new horizon, who will skilfully chart the course despite our diversity and advance the cause of our organisations.

-Oluwatosin Oyebola

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Customers Are Not Interested In Your Company, Only Their Satisfaction.

In today’s article, we focus on the only employer of labour – the customer. It is not news that all economically productive Nigerians (paid and unpaid labour) are engaged within the context of a defined arrangement to render services or deliver products. At the extremes, house-wives are engaged within the context of a family (delivering service to the home), and politicians engaged within the context of a political party and constituencies “to serve” the public’s interest.  The organisations that demand our time and service in exchange for wages or other forms of compensation are either profit oriented or not-for-profit oriented. Further classifications of for-profit organisations range from Corporations (large corporates) to sole proprietorship (the classic one-man business) while not-for-profits include Non-governmental organisations, Foundations, Government & Government-related establishments. While there are differences among organisations’ arrangements, businesses and structures; there is a unifying element called CUSTOMER and there is also a consensus that the customer is important. Even the average Nigerian politician now know that electorates “the politician’s customers” are important.

How Important is the Customer?

There is a popular saying that “the customer is king”. But is the customer really king? Let us quickly test this with a few questions: Have you ever got stuck on an idea because you are unsure if the service or product to be produced will sell? Have you ever launched a product or service you thought would be successful but didn’t sell enough to break-even let alone make a profit? How about business promotions, incentives or loyalty programs offered that you were sure will move the market but did not? Ever wondered why you keep losing customers to competitors, or outcomes of several planning sessions, professional advice and consulting-spend that did not make significant difference to sales nor profit?

The answer to all questions above and many more is the psyche of your CUSTOMER! The interesting thing is that the handlers or owners of organisations are worried about making their products or services appealing to customers because buying decisions positively connect with organisations specific outcomes such as a mandate, sales target, revenues, profit. However, the open secret is that customers are not interested in the organisations nor their financial performance. On the contrary, organisations are dead without customers.  Therefore, it is safe to say that the customer is not only king but the life blood of every business.

The Pitfall to Avoid About the Customer

Many businesses (small & BIG) echo their customer focus and initiatives for customer satisfaction, but unfortunately, they plan and implement in the wrong direction. The cause of these is closely related to the fact that the hearts of many organisations (people, process, systems, structure, rewards, etc.) remain rigidly product-centric, channelling attention and resources towards developing products or services without careful attention to consumers’ expectations. Most organisations therefore live in an alternate reality to their customers, holding an assumed belief of customers’ perception of their products and/or services as true when many times it may be wrong. Organisations that enforce their commitment to customer satisfaction from this standpoint will continue to lose large numbers of customers in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

The Journey to Satisfy the Customer

To demonstrate how the journey of customer focus should take-off, let me share two examples:

  1. A baker who specialized in baking bread located his bakery in a densely populated settlement in Ibadan. The baker started his bakery believing he knew what the customers will want in a bread, the usual he said, “competitive price, nutritious bread evidenced in taste, relatively heavy weight, attractive packaging and of course with NAFDAC registration number”. Alas, while the business owners’ perceptions are all lofty, after about a year in business, the baker learnt the sad truth that what he initially thought was important to the customer turned out to be the least of their priority. While speaking to a good number of his customers he learnt their true priority. They echoed to him, “what we really want is a bread with inner space that can be loaded with protein – bean cake, eggs (this clearly contradicts the baker’s initial perception that customers wanted a relatively heavy weight bread), and we buy the tallest bread within the same price range on the shelf (neither weight nor width mattered, only length!). Disappointed, he said to himself, if only I knew this earlier, my focus would have been sharper and my sales, better!
  2. A Lagos & Abuja based consulting firm named Management Transformation conducted a survey on factors that influence customer’s choice of Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) in Nigeria. Findings showed that while restaurant owners held ambience, variety of dishes, prices and other factors in high esteem, customers are all about the old faithful’s – quality of food and service, as they represent the most important factors to customers’ decision making on a restaurant choice.

So, from the above examples, the first simple principle to being customer focused is to know your customer. Many have been in businesses for years and they truly don’t know their customer. In-fact; you, your friends, family, neighbour, your average church or mosque members may not be the definition of your customer. Hence, wholly adopting their wants and suggestions can be damaging to your customers’ satisfaction. Imagine the irony of asking your grandparent on the type of a mobile phone your spouse will like, even with the best of intentions, it is unlikely to be on point! Therefore, it is fundamental that organisations begin to re-think approach to customer satisfaction and seek ways that guarantees competitive edge. The most effective way is by adopting the business specific customer-centric mindset, starting with a clear understanding of your customer.

The second principle in this article on the journey of being customer focused is another simple and obvious principle which can be picked from the examples above. If you want to know how to serve your customers? Ask them. Many businesses embark on unnecessary projects and schemes aimed to impress the customer but end up adding no value to the business and sometimes destroy value. Imagine a company that felt an internal push (not customer) to rebrand and successfully changed a product wrap that the customer still wanted. The result was a decline in sales contrary to the intention.

The third principle I invite readers to note is that when your customers finally speak to you, take it as being entrusted with the life blood that the survival of the business is hinged on, and don’t betray their trust. Don’t be arrogant, act on your market’s feedback because if you do not, others will and remember the customer is not interested in your company but relative superior satisfaction.

Businesses (existing and start-ups) that can embrace the above principles will do well in their customer satisfaction journey and in-turn have their business generate better sales and profitability. Examples abound of businesses and industries that are listening to their customers and acting on the customers’ response. Industries examples include the Nigerian Fashion & Music Industries that have continued to evolve and currently being shaped by entrepreneurs who listen and act on customers’ and markets’ request.

Businesses that will not embrace the customer centric principles have unknowingly adopted a strategy tagged “picking up coins in front of a bulldozer”, you may have momentary gains, but such businesses are unlikely to exist profitably in the long-run. Let me leave business owners, intrapreneurs and aspiring business owners with a few questions; Who are your customers? How are you presently pursuing or plan to pursue your customers satisfaction? Are you getting ahead and getting the results you want? What needs to change? Based on the principles described in this article, are you ready to make the change? These are the relevant questions I invite readers to reflect upon and provide objective answers to because change cannot occur until you realise the need for change by acknowledging the limitations in your present situation.

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