What is Leadership?

In my last post I mentioned that I had attended the 2013 NACS Leadership Forum in Miami a couple of weeks ago.  In that blog I wrote about social media and some of the presentations I had seen at the Forum.  But I thought that today I would address a more basic questions that is inherent in the title of the event – Leadership.  What exactly is leadership when it comes to retailing?

We all have pictures of leaders in our minds: brave, fearless, convinced that only they know the true path forward, handsome/beautiful.  They defy the odds to do what needs to be done and, at least in the movies, always gets the girl or boy at the end.

But how does this work in real life and especially in retail?  Personally, I don’t favor the image of retail as a domestic equivalent of war.  There have been many leadership books delving into the histories of Machiavelli, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Sun Tzu to come up with ways of handling the board room, the competition, and employees.  Granted, one needs to be aggressive in the market place with competitors and “fight” for market share and customers, but that is where I think the military similarities end.

To be a real leader in business you need to work with others to build a team.  The team needs to be comprised of people with different strengths, personalities, and perspectives so that all options are considered when making a plan. That doesn’t mean that every option should be explored or tested to death before anything happens.  That path leads to paralysis and stagnation.  Action always trumps over inaction.  As we say at CMSI, as long as no one gets hurt we can fix any mistake.  Multiple viewpoints helps us avoid anyone getting hurt.

A leader is someone who helps to craft the vision of the future, works with the team to create a goal, becomes the cheerleader to get the message to everyone on the team, and makes sure that the right resources get to the right places at the right time.  A leader is a conduit to help other people get to where they want to go – sometimes by showing them the way forward.

I don’t necessarily believe that a leader is a visionary.  To me, these seem to be two different roles and the visionary runs the risk of not being able to walk the path because he can only focus on the future while the leader is concentrating on making forward progress and not always seeing what is on the horizon (although there are exceptions such as the late Steve Jobs who combined both aspects).  Although not a retail example, I think that this explains why political revolutionary leaders almost always seem to become poor government leaders when they gain power.  They were visionaries who had the vision-thing but not the make-it-work thing.

Finally, one of the things that I think a leader has to provide is the moral compass for moving ahead.  I’m not talking about morality in a religious or spiritual way but, rather, in setting the tone as to how customers, employees, and even competitors are going to be viewed and treated.  In today’s world it seems that there is ever growing pressure to cut corners or to make the quick buck.  Basing a business strategy, or a life, on that mindset leads only to unhappiness, stress, and building a business on a house of cards.