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What makes good leadership?

A lot is being said and has been written about how strategies and market mechanics determine the success or failure of ventures and large companies. But any entrepreneur will confirm that it usually is execution which decides the fate of the company, especially in venture companies. Thus, leadership capabilities may be the most important skill set of venture management.

Leadership, management, and the principles which guide how employees are motivated and directed in their tasks are usually treated either as a self help topic in management books or as the HR side of company organization.

It might be time to focus on leadership and HR capabilities in the strategic dimension they have for the company. This means to recognize that the best company strategy can be killed by the wrong leadership methods. Good leadership is not only an important requirement for management. It is the necessary condition for company success!

In the region of North Germany where part of my family comes from we say that a fish always stinks from the head, which in my opinion puts in a nutshell the essence of leadership. If your venture team is not motivated or doesn’t excel, start at the head.

Ted Levitt once said that

organizations exist to enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things,

which I believe is only a way to say that things happen only if people do them. The success of a company is only achieved if the employees and the managers of that company willingly take the necessary actions to enable that success.

That is certainly first and foremost a question of deciding which of the actions that are available in a given situation is chosen, but it is equally importantly a question of ensuring that every employee executes that strategy in the way that best ensures success, including feedback and adaptation of the strategy when problems arise.

Achieving this, however, is a question of leadership.

Since all dictatorships eventually fail, leadership cannot be reduced to the ability to bark orders. All great historic figures acclaimed for their leadership, from Julius Cesar to Napoleon, from Spartacus to Martin Luther King, are all admired for their ability to inspire, to motivate, and to convey a sense of purpose to a large number of people, i.e. to the organization that they led.

Inspiration however, is nothing without credibility. Credibility, in turn, is only achieved through authenticity. Authenticity is only achieved through honesty. Applied to the world of the 21st century and the context of leadership in business organizations, this means that a truly successful leader needs to combine the ability to inspire others with a set of skills and principles that are tenets of credibility as a leader:

1. An inspiring sense of purpose.

2. A clear set of unflinching values. Shifty leaders command no respect.

3. Honesty at all costs.

4. The ability to communicate necessities and convey a sense of urgency to a team.

5. The ability to define the organization as a community serving a common goal.

6. The ability to honestly admit own mistakes and address the weaknesses of the organization.

7. Relentless commitment to the company goal, including the necessary ability to “punish underperformance”, without humiliating anyone in the organization.

8. The ability to lead by example, including in personal matters such as health or respect for others.

9. The discipline to pursue a strategy and tactics that belong to that strategy and to adapt these whenever necessary, not only “acting from the gut”.

10. The intelligence to always overestimate competition and underestimate your own position.

Most of these traits require a certain level of self-assurance, respect for others, and clear view of your own shortcomings that is incompatible with most managerial egos. But while there are enough cases of at least temporarily successful egomaniacs, in the long run only those entrepreneurs intelligent enough to value, respect, and reward their performing team members, and self-critical enough to recognize their own mistakes become truly great.

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