The high five of excellent corporate leadership

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

The best business leaders all possess qualities which are linked to an ability to inspire and manage change

In the modern business world, leaders clearly come in all shapes and sizes, and there is a corresponding wealth of theories about which innate or acquired qualities allow certain executives to rise to the top. It is generally agreed that some people just seem to have a combination of talent, learning and personality that mark them out as leaders and let them outshine contemporaries and outdo any rivals for the most senior positions.

In every company, there are, of course, specific requirements for a potential leader to match. These will differ depending on the industry sector, the organisation's size and ambitions, the prevailing business climate, and factors such as shareholder expectations.

However, beyond the specifics, it is also possible to identify five broader qualities, which all the best business leaders seem to possess. And according to Gilbert Wong Yao-yee, executive director of the Poon Kam Kai Institute of Management at the University of Hong Kong and an associate professor at the university's School of Business, these qualities are fundamentally linked to an ability to inspire and manage change.

Explaining his theory, Dr Wong first noted that there was a big difference between leaders and managers. Basically, what sets the former apart is a knack for planning and performing tasks which are not merely transactional, but transformational.

Nowadays, any competent executive with the necessary training can oversee different aspects of a company's day-to-day operations. They know how to implement systems, make the most of available resources and keep staff well motivated.

Leaders, though, must go substantially further. For them, it is not enough to ensure everything is running smoothly or to show that they can squeeze the maximum out of existing structures and processes. Instead, they must be able to focus on what needs to change and help staff at all levels to deal with it. That entails having the first of the five qualities - vision - and understanding the importance of ongoing transformation.

Referring to the words of former US senator Robert Kennedy, Dr Wong said that, in essence, great business leaders don't simply ask why, but are also prepared to ask 'Why not?'

'Like Mao, Gandhi or Lincoln, they impact you with a vision that is completely different, one that can change traditional ideas and transform people in the process,' he said.

The key to this was not just having the ability to come up with new ideas. It also entailed drawing on accumulated experience, personal struggles and gut feelings. And of course, what qualified as a vision in this context did not have to be on the scale of nation-building or reshaping society. The relevant factor was that it had to be sufficiently inspiring, somehow achievable, and to offer scope for long-term improvement.

In most cases, the starting point for any vision was keen observation of developments within one industry or business sector, after which an element of logic and strategic thinking came into play.

'Leaders make sense of their experience and discover a 'success formula',' Dr Wong said. 'But they also need to be passionate about selling to others the ideas they personally believe in.' He added that this was where the second quality - good communication - came in.

Given just three or four minutes, the best leaders could set out their plans succinctly and convincingly in a so-called 'elevator speech'. More than that, though, they could specify what it would take to make them happen, including the support or resources required, intermediate steps and the most likely obstacles.

In doing this, their evident passion helped to make such propositions not just interesting, but compelling for any audience.

Illustrating the point, Dr Wong noted a recent case study involving a Chinese manufacturer of ball bearings. The company had been steadily losing money and prospects looked grim. However, on closer examination, it turned out that the senior executive knew exactly what was needed to effect a turnaround.

He had clear vision of how to create a profitable, market-orientated enterprise selling high-quality products, and was ready to explain it in detail to anyone who cared to listen.

Ultimately, his plan hinged on introducing new productivity standards and making some key personnel changes. These included bringing in new marketing and HR managers, finding more experienced production staff, and hiring an overseas-educated Chinese who understood quality issues. With these people on board, it would be possible to upgrade capacity, guarantee reliability and improve staff relations. Hearing such an assured message, investors were ready to listen.

The third essential quality, Dr Wong said, was to have a strong system of values. 'You need to know what things you don't do,' he said. 'Good leaders must have passion, but also compassion and should understand that not everyone is a high flier. By definition, most people are average but, in organisations, you need them to work for you.'

He said these values extended well beyond matters of strict legality or accepted morality to exhibiting character traits such as considerateness and making a conscious effort to do no harm.

'The way you build teams and influence people to change their behaviour is based upon your values,' he said. 'Therefore, a leader should have the moral and social sensibility to understand that there are certain things you just don't do.'

Not surprisingly, Dr Wong strongly disagreed with the view, prevalent in some quarters, that it was results that counted, not the way they were achieved.

'I think this is wrong,' he said. 'You should care very much about how you get your results. The business world should care about integrity and its impact on the community. In fact, in companies like GE, if your performance is alright, but not your values, they will see that as a reason to fire you.'

In every walk of life, it was also important to accept the inevitability of both ups and downs. The best approach was to accept each one as an opportunity to learn and grow and, as the fourth quality, to have a positive attitude in good times and bad.

'Remember that you don't learn from having one type of experience repeated 20 times,' Dr Wong said.

He noted that leaders often explained their ideas by relating stories from their own lives. These regularly drew on lessons learned in times of hardship and highlighted what it had taken to surmount various obstacles. As a proven inspirational technique, the common theme running through such stories was that determination and a positive outlook paid off. 'Your attitude affects the way you work with other people,' Dr Wong said. 'So, it is best to see everything as an opportunity to learn.'

He emphasised that having the right attitude was also a quality that could spread to good effect throughout an organisation. For example, when Honda first attempted to break into the North American market, the company experienced tremendous difficulties with both its products and distribution network. However, the company was willing to take every setback as a chance to learn and eventually established a significant presence.

Finally, Dr Wong explained, a leader did not have to be perfect. 'But you do need to know your stuff, so the last quality is diligence. Be broad in outlook, but don't neglect your own field, because you must be really good at something,' he said.

He suggested that the problem with a lot of modern education was that it emphasised the importance of having an open mind and thinking creatively, but underplayed the need for developing genuine expertise. He likened this to reading only the first chapter in every book and never going deeply enough into any subject.

'That is the problem with charismatic leaders. They have the ideas, but not the systems to see them through,' he said.

However, leaders who had each of the core qualities could influence people with both their personality and knowledge. In that way, they could build effective teams, perfect business processes, and get the best out of every individual. All told, Dr Wong said great business leaders had generally learned to do two things: 'To go to the window and look outside, and to go to the mirror and look at oneself.'

Gilbert Wong Yao-yee, executive director of the Poon Kam Kai Institute of Management at the University of Hong Kong and an associate professor at the university's School of Business, was the keynote speaker at a recently held Classified Post readers' seminar, entitled Taking the Lead. It was held on July 16 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and sponsored by recruitment firm Asian Career and Zurich Insurance Group (Hong Kong).

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it

Dwight Eisenhower

34th US president