‘’What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead,’’ Nelson Mandela.
The perks and prestige of leadership can be very alluring and inspire you to work hard towards securing that coveted position at the top of the career ladder. Companies only have one peerless role – the role of the Chief Executive Officer, CEO. After decorating your new office and reading through the congratulatory messages regarding your new appointment, as a freshly minted CEO, you will roll up your sleeves and get to work. After long, grueling hours of toil the realization begins to dawn on you that the perks and prestige of the position come with a heavy price and some of that luster may begin to fade. However, even though your leadership journey may be all consuming, lonely and stressful, the rewards can be well worth it for you and your followers when you carve out your own place in history with your own unique contribution to your company and the greater good of society.
Leadership is a concept that has been defined by many but who truly achieves it? During a session of the Global CEO 2021 program, Dr. Caesar Mwangi, CEO of ICEA Lion Insurance Holdings Limited, posed the question “What does it mean to lead?’’ Industry leaders from different African nations attending the course, pondered this question and a lively debate ensued. The answers ranged from, “setting the strategic direction,” “mobilizing resources,” “seeing something ahead and creating a vision that inspires others,” “being a good negotiator,’’ “being held accountable,” to “being ultimately responsible,’’ among other contributions. These complex facets of leadership highlight the weight of responsibility that comes with a leadership role. Dr. Mwangi summed this up beautifully in his statement, “Ultimately leadership boils down to taking people, counties and countries to a better place which may never happen in your lifetime. As a leader you have a vision and a purpose and you have to influence people.’’ This article aims to elucidate some key lessons on leadership fundamentals for CEOs.
- Leading as a Changemaker Ad Infinitum
Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a dream,’’ encapsulates his message and life’s work. This historic speech is quoted often in leadership discussions and as we reflect on the quote, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’’ we can see the results of the movement he inspired in our world today. The impact your leadership makes and your purpose should outlive you. In the corporate world, organizations are increasingly being scrutinized for their contribution to society and making the world a better place. CEOs are being called upon to lead this change. The title you hold gives you the opportunity to exercise leadership and influence at the highest level.
- Putting Self-Interest Aside
Leadership has costs that many people are unwilling to pay. Leadership can cost you your friends, your health, your time and even your reputation. History has recorded many visionary leaders that were not appreciated in their time and branded as “lunatics,’’ or “mad men,’’ because they could see something no one else could see on the horizon. When times get tough and leaders go through that ‘dark night of the soul,’ when they question their commitment and whether they want to stay the course their personal sacrifices become more apparent to them.
Persistence, belief and commitment are ideals that Mohandas K Gandhi embodied and led to him to be revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’ of one of the world’s largest democracies. In 1893, he arrived in South Africa where he was quickly exposed to the racial discrimination there. He transformed from a shy, young barrister and found in South Africa, and the Indian community’s fight for equality, his calling and path that changed the world. Indeed, President Nelson Mandela commented in a speech he made in India, “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.’’ Gandhi’s determination to follow through on his vision was often at the cost of his own well being and may have ultimately cost him his life. Although this is an example of extreme dedication, the lesson still holds true for the corporate world where CEOs often sacrifice their time and other interests to pursue their leadership goals. The willingness to sacrifice yourself for the people you lead and put aside self-interest and enrichment and dedicate yourself to a life of service will build your legacy and help you to make a lasting impact that outlives you.
- Embodying a Spirit of Excellence
As the leader of an organization, the watchful eyes of your followers are constantly upon you. As you lead by example, if you are rushing around and half -heartedly doing things, or if you do not ‘walk the talk,’ your behavior will set a precedent. The quality of your work and the work of your organization speaks volumes about the values and culture of your organization. Striving to give your best and being detail-oriented will set an example that will have ripple effects throughout the organization.
- Embodying a Spirit of Innovation
CEOS must be able to deal with complex situations and have a plan in the face of uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has sorely tested leaders as they faced the numerous challenges posed by the new normal. Indeed, leaders today are still grappling with the situation as it evolves. Building an organizational culture where people are encouraged to ask, “How can we do this better?’’ can unlock the power of innovative thinking throughout the organization. Start by organizing company-wide forums where open discussions are encouraged.
- Establish a Culture of being Outcome-Driven
During the Global CEO program, Chantel IIbury, one of Africa’s leading Scenario Strategists delved into the complexities of creating an effective strategy in times of uncertainty. It is incumbent on the leader to set the direction for the company. Therefore, CEOs must understand how to craft effective strategies. Peter Drucker, an Austrian born American Management Consultant states that, “Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art.” This highlights the importance of ensuring that the strategy is implemented effectively. The most successful CEOs are able to articulate desired outcomes clearly which helps translate activity to accomplishment, eliminate redundant processes and improve the speed of execution. Therefore as a CEO you must focus on both strategy development and successful execution of the strategy.
In conclusion, CEOs are under increased scrutiny by employees, customers, shareholders, board members and the media following the onset of the global pandemic. The unprecedented demands and unchartered territories they find themselves in brought on by navigating health crises, the shutdown of the global economy, remote work policies and supply chain volatility can prove daunting to say the least. You many find yourself in complex situations that are difficult to navigate. However, take heart in remembering that some of the greatest leaders in history were forged in times of crisis. The Global CEO program concluded with Dr. Julius Kipng’etich, Jubilee Holdings Regional CEO addressing the leaders assembled from across Africa, he concluded his session with the entreaty “I challenge you Global CEOs, make Africa great!’’
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Article by Shailja Sharma, Executive Fellow and Coach