You’ve Got to Love It to Lead It

And I don’t mean ‘love it’ like we ‘love’ our first coffee of the day. To really lead an organisation, or a significant part of it, you need to love what it is about, what it delivers, who works for it and who needs it.

“Are you serious Steve? Do you really mean love with all its emotional context?!” Absolutely I do.

You can manage, govern, direct and administrate it without loving it, but if you want to lead it you will need to think about your emotional connection to your organisation and work. And it’s leadership that everyone is looking for. I’m sure you’re familiar with those tables that contrast the traits and behaviours of leaders versus managers. The internet is littered with them and if you have an MBA you probably unpacked some of them in great detail. Words like….

Managers – Stability, Reactive, Subordinates, Control, Power, Plans, Risk Management, Short-term, Consistency, Maintaining, Administrating

Leaders – Change, Proactive, Followers, Influence, Inspiration, Direction, Risk Taking, Long-term, Flexibility, Developing, Innovating


Leadership is Influence

The trouble with these sorts of comparisons is they paint the manager/leader debate as two extremes, when in reality it’s more nuanced than that. Great leaders usually have some management skills and good managers usually display some leadership traits. However, what we need to recognise here is that there is a much stronger emotional content to the characteristics of good leaders; E.Q. is as important (if not more so) than I.Q. The most succinct definition of leadership I know is “leadership is influence” from John Maxwell. We may be able to influence through logical argument and evidence to some degree, but to do it successfully we have to make an emotional connection as well.

I am reminded of the experience of a colleague who worked as the EHS Director of a major multi-national engineering company. For years he had been trying to get his Board’s attention onto the health risks in their workplaces. Each meeting the Board were presented with the latest clinical reports, backed up with stacks of numerical data. but he got nowhere. Eventually he changed his strategy and confronted Board with the bold statement that they were exposing their workers to Carcinogens, Mutagens, Reprotoxins and Sensitisers on a daily basis. That did the trick! No one, not even a Finance Director, wants to think their business is giving people cancer, messing with their DNA, damaging their reproductive systems and causing serious allergic reactions. Of course my colleague had the data to back up his assertion, but you get the point.


Who Has Influenced You for Good?

Just think for a moment about the leaders who have influenced you for good. What descriptive words come to mind when you think about them? Maybe it’s things like; example, passionate, supportive, challenging, authentic, visionary, inspiring, integrity, enthusiastic, trusting… Without fail, all of these descriptors carry an explicit or implicit emotional content. They make you feel something. Because of that they are also hard to fake (thank heavens!) Most people can spot fake emotional content a mile off. That’s why integrity has to be the underpinning characteristic for authentic leadership.

Which brings me back to why you have to love it to lead it. Those descriptors you thought of are also words we typically use to describe someone who loves what they do. In current management-speak they’d be called ‘ownership and commitment‘. If you want to lead, then you must influence. And you can’t influence people if you don’t love what you do.

In October 2017 McKinsey* reported the results of an extensive survey of over 2000 executives into what makes a successful organisational change implementation. It’s no surprise that roughly two-thirds of respondents indicated that the single most significant factor influencing a transformations outcome was the degree of ownership and commitment of the organisations leaders. Love > Influence > Change. That’s leadership.


Eight Signs You Love What You Lead

Here’s a quick checklist to finish, with eight signs that you love what you lead. Do you have any others to add?

  1. Curiosity – your desire to learn about your field and discover new insights is insatiable.
  2. Care – A.K.A love in action. Your actions demonstrate that you genuinely care about your organisation and it’s people.
  3. Ideas – for innovation just keep popping into your mind, even (or especially) when you’re ‘off duty’.
  4. Energy – your enthusiasm and passion energises those around you.
  5. Vulnerability – you’re willing to be open about your mistakes, because you are secure in your role.
  6. Guardian – you see yourself as a protector of your organisations integrity and reputation.
  7. Reaching – you can’t settle for what is; you’re always reaching beyond your grasp for what is to come.
  8. Optimism – the one thing a leader can’t delegate. Whatever the ‘weather’ you know the sun will shine again!

Of course a list like this can raise a bigger question; “what if I don’t love what I’m trying to lead?” If that has occurred to you the first thing I’d say is don’t panic, love can be learned. But maybe its time to take a step back and look at what you really want to devote your energies to. If you need guidance with that reflection process then executive coaching can provide a helpful catalyst and framework.