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Leaders must walk their talk – or lose their followers

Dec 15, 2008 Business Daily, Leadership

“To trust a leader, it is not necessary to like him. Nor is it necessary to agree with him. Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is a belief in something very old-fashioned, called “integrity”. A leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible. Effective leadership – and again this is very old wisdom – is not based on being clever; it is based primarily on being consistent.”

Peter F. Drucker, Managing for the Future (1992)

Readers of Thought Leadership will have noted that the column has moved from Fridays to Mondays. It is now part of the BD’s new weekly management supplement. To mark the change, I thought we could do no better than to heed the wisdom of Peter Drucker, referred to as “the guru of the gurus’ gurus” by Tom Peters (you may need to read that again).

Managing for the Future was one of the great man’s seminal works – but then which of his outpourings is not regarded as seminal in the study of management? Let’s consider the wisdom being imparted in the excerpt chosen here.

First, note Drucker’s emphasis on “old-fashioned” and “very old” wisdom. It is entirely true that in matters of strategy and leadership, there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever you need to learn about these subjects is already known; it has been experienced since time immemorial; it is documented. All you need is the openness of mind to sift through the sands of mankind’s past; and the knowledge of where to look.

Second, note the observation that good leaders need be neither likeable nor agreeable, but they do have to be trustworthy. If followers do not feel they have any basis on which to trust what a leader says, they have no reason to follow. Once trust is broken, the basic contract between leader and follower is torn up. Drucker’s observation has been proved by subsequent work: Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been conducting research on leadership around the world for more than 25 years. They pose the question: which are the top characteristics of admired leaders? There is one characteristic that always comes top of this poll, whenever and wherever the research is done. In 2007, it was chosen by 89 per cent of respondents. What is it? Exactly what Drucker said: leaders must be honest and trustworthy.

Meaning what you say, then, is leadership’s starting point. But do pay heed: what you say need not be nice, or popular, or even terribly clever. It must, however, be consistent. Leaders who change with the wind, who follow popular opinion rather than shape it, who mould their opinions to fit with prevailing fashion – those leaders are never going to inspire followers. And they are certainly never going to change the world.

Take Michael Joseph, CEO of the region’s most profitable company, Safaricom. He is a plain-speaking man of forthright opinions. He does not hide his feelings, and he is not someone you would enjoy being in a disagreement with. There are plenty who find him difficult to like, and plenty who disagree with him. But can anyone doubt his achievement? In just a few years, he has taken Safaricom from a rag-tag government oufit that was going nowhere, to a company that has broken records and boundaries in equal measure. Whether you like Michael or not, you can be sure he does what he says, and says what he means.

Walk and talk must be compatible, in other words. And that is where so many would-be leaders fall down. They fall into the trap of thinking that leadership is about words. It isn’t. It is about work, results, and performance. It’s not what you say; it’s what you do, achieve and deliver that counts.

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