Trustworthy and nontrustworthy leaders are magnified reflections of who they are in their private lives. Some leaders like to brag about their families, children and areas of life about which their colleagues know very little. It seems these leaders are aware that we all appreciate people whose casual moments display fun, care, and love for children. This is one reason why many leaders work hard to conceal their imperfections. It's no secret that many people wear masks to hide their character flaws at work. Imagine a bunch of people in a conference room wearing masks, breastplates, and bulletproof vests. Imagine them acting as if observers cannot notice those items meant to ward off pain and hurt. I have heard it said, ‘fake it until you make it.' To which I reply, ‘the truth shall set you free all the time.' Who wants to live in fear of being exposed? Self-induced fear of exposure is nothing short of self-imprisonment. Being yourself is much easier and satisfying. Many would appreciate knowing you in all your strengths, failings, and efforts to grow. So let's go behind the scenes to reflect on ‘F' in my leadership alphabet. Here we ponder the leadership qualities that are not so visible but are helpful to make us better leaders. Perhaps, these same qualities will make us better people at home as well. Don't you think it is liberating to unmask yourself? Be prepared to do just that in the quest to be the leader whom people appreciate for who you are and see as deserving of their trust.
F is for Fruit
My host on a recent trip to France during breakfast reminded me that I needed to intake about five fruits a day. 'It helps to start the day with about two fruits in your diet before life gets too busy,' he would say. Think about this. What if a silent voice whispered in leaders' ears each day the necessity to produce fruit to keep their organizations in good health. What do I mean? I mean that your organization will ultimately die if you do not reproduce values, style, and culture. More than you are aware, traces of your love, work-ethic, and social outlook are everywhere on your team. You probably walk on the stains each minute. Your fruit may take the form of virtues, but let's ponder the fruit of 'people leaders' as people. How many people can you say you have been intentional with to help them become better individuals and greater leaders? If the answer is none then is it possible that you have killed or repelled talents? People are much more than a utility. If you can identify young talents and mentor them to exhibit your values, do what you do and how you do it then you are in the fruit bearing business. It takes time to share your life, but a love for people will cause you to see it as a privilege and opportunity to sow seeds, water gardens, see trees grow, and enjoy watching the fruit produced. I have witnessed private ventures collapse when the manager fell ill. I have seen institutions go bust because of inward looking leadership – self-centered, self-absorbed and self-important. I once asked a leader, 'how come people who leave you tend to do well elsewhere?' Answer, ‘because I train well.' Guess what? Each of those people left because he was actually a bad leader. All leaders bear fruit – some bitter fruit, some poisonous fruit, but my hope is that you bear great, healthy fruit! Apple trees bear apples and leaders bear leaders with similar nutrients and traits. Be intentional and exemplary. Commit to one person at a time, and you will become the leader whose legacy extends to posterity.
F is for Focus
This century offers an incredible amount of options and resources for convenience and productivity. The downside is that many of these options take away the ability of leaders to stay focused in the pursuit of concrete and measurable outcomes. The loud and competing voices for attention impresses upon leaders the increased need for discretionary prudence and sound decision making more than at any other time in human history. As if this were not enough, too many busybodies are swinging in the jungle of attractions to interfere, diverge and demand attention. Before time robbers find solace with you, please think about three things – focus, focus and more focus.
For lack of focus, leaders often choose people they wish to be friends with to occupy job vacancies instead of simply choosing competent people. Organizations and institutions are frequently hiring lazy, unproductive, and unqualified ‘friends' in the hope that high productivity would magically ensue. Do we not all agree that the most important decision leaders make is who they hire? Early this year, I decided to observe how leaders behave at a social gathering following a conversation I had with graduate students on culture. I witnessed certain patterns across the board. Too many had an intense propensity for attention – they would sometimes not complete a thought or even a sentence without scanning the room to see who else they can meet next. I also observed so many doing something with their phones, sneaking a reply to messages or looking completely tuned out from events in the room. Leaders want to succeed, but many cannot concentrate. My observations from working with leaders in Arab North Africa and West Africa make me wander in the realm of conspiracy that cell phones and tablets came to the continent as a plague to rob African leaders of any level of productivity. On occasion, I could not recommend an important transaction go forward between a western institution and an African university partly because every meeting with the African President featured a troubling lack of focus. He would turn the television on in his office before an important conversation. He would check messages on his cell phone every three to four minutes, or call his secretary on an unrelated issue. The verdict: he is not serious; he lacks focus! You do business with such a person at your own peril, and we all knew better.
It is, however, refreshing to see an increasing number of focused, disciplined and organized emerging leaders on the continent. I see young men and women with unwavering commitment and determination to achieve high goals. People do not trust leaders who operate as if everything deserves their attention – those tend to micromanage. Focus is the sister of consistency and the niece of constancy. So what three areas of your life do you need to reconsider for better focus? What habits are you prepared to let go – use of cell phones, tablets, etc. Identify your triggers and establish boundaries. Accept that you are responsible for why people do or do not trust you. I have just reminded you that you have the ability and capacity to be focused and become a trusted leader!
F is for Family
Too many leaders underestimate the effect of relationships in their family on their success. By family, I do not mean you must be married. Think about family as the circle of people you deem kinsmen. Each one of us was born to a mother, raised by one or someone we call mother. I would like to believe that each one us has a father – present, absent, responsible or irresponsible. Siblings and distant relatives count as family if you grew up with them in the sense of how I am using the word here. Let me remind you that the way you feel or relate to relatives directly correlate with how you relate or deal with other people as a leader. If leadership is about influencing, as I think it is, then do not underestimate the impact of the passions you cultivate in the family experience. You live to give part of what you have and show your deficiencies when circumstances demand what you do not have. You can give love if you have received love, but you cannot give what you do not have. Angry people emit anger whereas irritants irritate effortlessly. Fathers and mothers who like to compete with their spouse tend to see relationships in terms of competition. The last time I checked, it is rivals who compete, conceal secrets for success, and don’t care much about their opponents. Broken leaders can be ‘heart breakers’ if they are not careful. You will need your family around when your job is gone so take time to heal, love and care for your family. Pleasant family experience transfers for your success in the workplace. Men who had a good relationship with their moms tend to treat women with respect. Women who had good relationships with men in the home tend to do so at work. People from abusive homes bring residues of pain into the workplace. Make it a priority to find healing and resolve conflict in your family. Make family a priority and you will find meaning and more satisfaction in what you do.
The family is also the locus of leadership development. It is a leadership laboratory for those who will become one. The ‘family lab' also exposes viruses and microorganisms that have the potential to create permanent damage. The attitude in the workplace mirrors that of the home. Family members are most honest to draw your attention to areas of your life that need growth. The ancient Greeks invoked a man's ability to lead at home and raise responsible children as the measure of his ability to hold military office or civil leadership. The Greeks cherished concord, sobriety and discipline. The New Testament echoes this when it asks, "for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?" (1 Tim 3:5 ESV) Do not be deceived. The grumpy husband is not a cheerful leader. A selfish father must not be expected to become a generous manager. Running from family challenges is trying to outpace your own shadow in a race of life. Family is a sensitive topic, but I urge you to forgive, seek reconciliation and make time for the people in your life. You will experience more peace and that peace will permeate all you do as a leader.
F is for Failure
Fear of failure is one big obstacle in the way of incredible innovations. Failure could be a great teacher or a bad master depending on your disposition. People sometimes fail because they are prepared to step out of the comfort zone to venture something new. Pioneers become too acquainted with failure. Great achievers encounter failings but refuse to allow them to master their thoughts, drive, or life. John Maxwell wrote a helpful book on this subject entitled Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success – one that I recommend for every leader to read. Those who project leadership as ‘all success’ consider failure as weakness. It is what you do when you are down that counts. Leaders rise and go forward. If they fall seventy times they rise seventy times; they learn from their mistakes and keep on keeping on. The story of great leaders usually includes episodes of failure. They remember when and how they failed and make no pretense of it. All frontline leaders who dare to accomplish great things may fail more than once. Failure does not make you a loser. Nothing important ever came to the market and did well with just one try.
As a village boy in Ghana, we used to fetch water from a nearby river, as our primary source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc. Usually, Angela’s boys (my siblings and I) would go three times a day. On too many occasions one of us would trip and fall after walking and carrying a bucket full of water for about one and a half miles. Each time it happened, the response was predictable. The one who fell would go back to the river alone to fetch the water and carry it back. I remember an occasion when my younger brother fell just before we got to the house. It was time to get to school, but he did not want to go home without water, so he insisted on going back. We’ve got to bring the water home, come what may! Leaders fall and fail, but great leaders do not make a bedroom on the floor. Setbacks do not make them step back. They transform failure into propellers for a better destiny. Lead, rise and keep leading.
F is for Fervor
To be fervent is to be warm, energized and committed to the task at hand. Fervency is born out of freedom and rooted in self-determination. Leadership comes with highs and lows. It can be rough and intrusive. Sometimes, it may feel as though the bright light shines only in one direction to unveil your blind spots. Exhaustion and fatigue can make you want to quit. Recall the story of Elijah the prophet: hungry and exhausted he cried out to God, ‘I have had enough Lord, take my life.’ God knew it; He understands the frustrations of a leader who just accomplished great results yet could not resist death threats from a woman who had the power to carry it out. God fed Elijah and encouraged him to keep on going forward. Leaders need resilience and fervency now more than ever before. Fervor is the drive, enthusiasm or depression that drains all your energy. This intense feeling on the inside may come in the form of a still small voice saying ‘you cannot quit; you must go forward.’ Listen to that voice each time. Do not allow external circumstances to sabotage your drive to make a difference. As a Christian, those are perfect times to call on God and depend on his Word. Toughness is more than verbal claims or impressions. Remember the adage, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ I call them leaders with tenacity. The leader who says ‘I am scared, but I feel deep in the inside that fear cannot have the final word.’ Leading with fervor is a cardinal trait – let’s embrace it.
Global trends show that people increasingly expect more from their leaders. Leaders are being confused with saviors. Be careful even if you think you are indeed a savior! I have proposed in this ‘F’ alphabet on leadership that we reflect on the need to take care of ourselves, our homes and build internal (personal) capacity for successful leadership. I have learned that many people are selfish – they care less about leaders and care more about how to get them to meet their needs. Put your role in proper perspective. Think about how ‘F’ is also for frankness, freedom, fairness and forgiveness as you embark on this journey with me. You are a leader, NOT a super human. Let us continue to strive to become better people as we work on yielding nourishing fruit. Let’s lead ourselves first if we want to maximize our influence on others.