What is leadership?

October 24, 2014 admin

What defines a leader? It’s interesting to note that true leaders seldom lay claim to being leaders, even though they are. After all, if they really are a leader, it’s usually clear to everyone and indisputable. Leaders, therefore, have no need to make claims; the facts of who they really are and the leadership position they already clearly occupy speak for themselves.

If you look at the promotional material produced by most firms in the real estate business, however, you won’t have to read very far before you’ll stumble upon words like “leader,” “leading,” or something of a similar ilk. Early on, you’ll tend to see (completely unsubstantiated) claims such as “Our company is one of the leading firms …” or “Our company is the leader in …”

(Of course, if you’re not the acknowledged, undisputed leader in your field, opening your pitch by making claims that you are undermines the credibility of just about everything else that follows.)

If nobody else is following your “lead,” claiming to be a leader doesn’t hold much water either. Think about it. Who wants to be number two or three? (Now, if you happen to be number two or three in your field, that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly better than being number four, or five, or one hundred. But it doesn’t make you a leader if nobody’s really gunning for your position. The fact is, they aren’t even looking at you. They’re all looking at — and gunning for — the top position, for the leader’s position. In other words, even if you’re number two, who’s following? And if nobody’s following, by definition, you’re not really a leader.)

On the other hand, there’s nothing really wrong with being a follower. In fact, followers actually are pretty important; you can’t be a leader without them. You might even argue that followers actually “make” leaders.

As the music business entrepreneur Derek Sivers noted in his classic presentation for TED, “How to Start a Movement”: “The first follower is what transforms a known nut into a leader.”

The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of firms that claim to be leaders in their field are not. (On the other hand, they aren’t always “known nuts,” either, because most aren’t really doing anything different to set themselves apart from the crowd.)

Now, if you aren’t the acknowledged, undisputed leader in your field, by definition, you really only have a few choices. One is to do nothing different and hope for the best (this is called denial). Another is to do your best to emulate what the leaders are doing and, again, hope for the best. (But this is called “following,” not “leading.”) The third is to attempt to leapfrog the leader through innovation. And that’s what really sets leaders apart.

The problem is, innovating can be risky. Your innovations might not produce the desired results (in which case you could end up looking like just another “known nut”). Not surprisingly, therefore, attempting to truly innovate too often ends up being the road less traveled.

So how do leaders achieve their leadership positions? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

Clearly, they don’t do it by asking what best practices look like. (That’s a followers question if I’ve ever heard one.)

Instead, true innovators start by trying to identify what they think their clients will love, what will blow their clients’ hair back. You typically don’t find out what that is by conducting market research or focus groups. (“If I’d asked my customers what they really wanted, most would have said, ‘a faster horse,’” Henry Ford reportedly once said.)

Whenever we’re launching a new product or service, it’s always been fascinating to see how people respond. If the product is any good (and sometimes, admittedly, it isn’t), a small minority typically can be counted on to always be the first to step up and get behind the launch. They almost instantly see the value, and typically don’t care what other people or companies think or are going to do. The vast majority of folks, however, almost reflexively respond by asking, “Who else is doing it?” And then they wait to see who does. Again, nothing wrong with that. But the very question defines them as followers, not leaders.

Leaders also realize that the bar for what customers will love is almost always in the process of being raised. Consequently, leaders never rest. They tend to view complacency as the enemy and constantly seek to push the envelope when it comes to innovation.

Too often, when followers do attempt to emulate leaders, they end up missing one or more critical elements in execution. They get the superficial elements, but miss the whole point of what the leader is trying to do. So usually — although not always — leaders continue to lead while followers continue to follow.

Leaders also don’t tend to wait for situations to change before taking action. They think carefully about what’s happening now. And they tend to anticipate turns in the road before they’re upon them. (As Bernard Winograd, the former COO of Prudential, once noted, “A turn in the road isn’t the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn.”) The problem is, you’re unlikely to make the turn if you don’t see it coming. Leaders are always looking out ahead.

Followers are always trying to cover their rear ends, always trying to avoid doing anything that might undermine their current position. Leaders are always sticking their necks out, always taking risks that absolutely could undermine their current position, in hopes of enabling them to continue to stay ahead of the pack. (When leaders lose this instinct, they become vulnerable to challenges from below. But those challenges almost always come from new emerging leaders, not from the pack of followers)

So, in the final analysis, how can you tell a leader from a follower? Don’t look at what they say. Look at what they do. They lead.

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GeoffFinalv5forwebGeoffrey Dohrmann is president and CEO of Institutional Real Estate, Inc.

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