Taking the lead

Kyoto: Mother & Daughter

This is one of many articles that I will be blogging on my favorite subject: global leadership.

By now those of you actually pursuing MBA studies (or preparing to pursue them) are well aware of the strong emphasis that schools give to leadership. This has been an evolutionary process, as it was not so long ago that leadership was less than a buzz word in the schools. At the time Interface was researching its Guide to the Best Business Schools, I wanted to offer a book that both described MBA programs around the world and included a category organized by business functions. I wrote a chapter on MBA schools offering strong programs in distinct hot fields, like venture capital, real estate, biotech, and social enterprise. For another specialized category, I did quite a bit of “digging” to identify MBA schools emphasizing leadership in their curricula.

How times have changed. Today leadership has become a “mantra” and virtually all the schools tout their leadership programs.

I focus my coaching practice on the global leadership development of my clients, and am rewarded most in Interface by the contributions we have made to help some of Japan’s most distinguished next generation leaders. Leadership is the raison d’être and primordial mission of Interface.

In consulting Japanese clients for more then 20 years, I have observed misconceptions about what leadership is and how it can be practiced and developed. One stereotype is that leadership is limited to a conventional “command and control” model, more representative of the way organizations were led sometime back in the last century. In this model, the leader was like an autocratic general on the battle-field. He or she could be charismatic and inspirational, but the element of formal power and force was always a constant. People followed not always because they wanted to, but rather because they had to.

But this is not the only model of leadership, nor is it necessarily the most effective model. Leadership can be exercised in many forms—as any admissions officer knowing something about this topic will tell you. Indeed, study teams in business school rarely have assigned leaders. Rather leadership is co-shared and emergent. Over time the best leaders in a study group assume the greatest influence on the learning team.

The ability to exercise leadership in business organization, especially in hierarchically structured, mature bureaucracies (typically large organizations) is limited by seniority. The seniority system is institutional in Japanese business culture—but recognize that seniority also prevails in other cultures, even if the degree of formality is less.

However, this does not mean that younger workers cannot exercise leadership. They can exercise leadership by taking the initiative to propose potential improvements that are waiting for someone to realize, small ones and big ones. Leadership may be proposing the elimination of redundant work or unnecessary reporting and convincing your boss to support you through the hierarchy. It may be advocating a position that is contrary to the predominant view, always a challenge in a consensus-driven organization and society. It may be the mentoring of an even younger colleague struggling to keep up with work demands or facing some other professional or personal challenge. It may be resolving team conflict. The list goes on and on. Just look carefully around you and the leadership opportunities are there.

I have had clients who shared incredible experiences, experiences that displayed powerful leadership and became center pieces in their presentations to schools. The secret is to build upon these rich experiences and realize new growth and continuous learning. I have suggested ways to exercise leadership to my clients and am immensely pleased with the satisfaction their efforts brought them. This is the heart of professional consulting and coaching, a profession that I love dearly.

Outside of work, you can find an ocean of opportunity to exercise leadership. It need not involve volunteering. There tends to be stereotypical thinking that to appeal to a school you must become a volunteer. Volunteering is great if that is “your thing,” but there are many ways to serve your community and to lead outside of your work. Some Interfacers have had awesome experiences in volunteering, such as a client who worked in India for Mother Teresa`s organization, or another who used to spend his days off caring for demented elderly patients in a care center. He designed games for the patients to exercise physically and mentally.

Others have chosen different alternatives to serve the community. Some organize discussion groups on current issues or in professional organizations. One client promoted the use of traditional Chinese medicines in a club whose members were interested in this field. Some have become chapter leaders in Toastmasters International, and one was the top Japanese finisher in the Iron Man triathlon. And it’s not just Iron Man or men. A female client and leader in her field, health care, completed no fewer than eighteen 42.2 kilometer marathons and full triathlons.

Many options are available to you and no seniority system blocks you from leading or teaming up with others to lead.

Do what you like, whatever interests you. What is most important is that you seek opportunities to exercise leadership whenever you can. Surely, such experiences are the foodstuff of great essays. But most important is that those experiences represent the engines of your personal growth and enrichment.

Wishing you all happy holidays. Which reminds me, I had better go meet Santa coming down the chimney.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier

©2010 Warren J. Devalier