ABC of leadership I

For the next couple of weeks, our focus will be on the fundamentals of leadership using letters of the alphabet.


A  –  Attention to details

Great leaders pay attention to details. They are neither flippant nor frivolous because they know that their work is their signature and therefore endeavour to make it a masterpiece by paying attention to details.

Leaders cannot lead effectively unless they decidedly pay attention to details. Without having details about their followers, they will be hamstrung to help them. Without having details about situations, they will be unable to change them. So, paying attention to details is what makes the difference between outstanding and run of the mill leaders.

For leaders to build anything of significance, they must learn to pay attention to details. That is the thrust of a poem by Benjamin Franklin:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

Imagine losing a kingdom because of a nail. That is the cost of failing to pay attention to details.  Leaders who do not place premium on details will always have their Waterloo occasioned by seemingly insignificant things.

When leaders fail to pay attention to details, they put their followers in great risk because their failure to do the essential will jeopardize the wellbeing of others. That is what happened to the passengers and crew members aboard The Titanic in April 1912.


The sinking of the Titanic

The Titanic was touted as the unsinkable, largest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world. The ship builders embarked on the exercise essentially to compete with another shipping company, the Cunard Line. The ship lived up to its bidding in all respects but one. It was the largest, no ship its size had ever been built until that time; and it was luxurious, as it was patterned after the Ritz Hotel, a 5-star hotel located in Piccadilly area of London. But it was not unsinkable. So much glamour attended its manufacture that its maiden and unfortunately final voyage was globally celebrated.

The ship took off from Southampton on April 10, 1912. But four days later, while heading towards New York, it hit an iceberg, which caused it to break apart and went down, taking along with it over 1,500 of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew members on board.


Why did such a huge ship suffer such a cruel fate?

According to material scientists, Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who examined the wreck in the 1980s, the ship’s rivets contained a high concentration of slag, which makes metal to split apart. Builders of the ship failed to pay attention to critical details about it. Hence, when the ship hit the iceberg, because of the poor quality of the rivets used, it stood no chance of survival.


Destiny is attached to details.

B –  Branding

Every leader is a brand. Every leader must have his own signature tune, that distinctive attribute that is solely his, that unmistakable character that is uniquely his. That is what stands him out, that is what makes him unique, that is his brand.

Personal branding is how you define yourself as a leader. It is your trademark and can be an asset or a liability, depending on what you make of it. Your personal branding is the vibe that people get when they have an encounter with you. It is the impression you create. It is the taste you leave in people’s mouth, it is the presence you create even in your absence.


Here are a few things that determine your brand.

Your work – Do you deliver on agreed terms in spite of difficulty or do you turn difficulties to excuses? Steve Jobs had a reputation for always delivering on agreed terms. When Apple started, he managed it excellently well. When office politics led to his exit from Apple, he started NeXT Inc, which became a success. When he was brought back to Apple, the fortune of the company went up again. He gave his all to his work and that defined him.

Your comportment – Do you throw yourself in other people’s faces or are you willing to give others a chance?

Your appearance – Do you ensure you turn out well every time or you don’t give a hoot about your looks?

Your utterance – Do you say your mind or do you mind what you say?

Your attitude – Do you cave in under pressure or are you calm in spite of pressure?

Your relationships – Do you use others or are you willing to give of yourself to others?

Your style – Are you cooperative or combative? Are you a team player or a lone ranger? Do you build bridges or walls? Do you build people up or tear them down?


C – Character

According to Norman Schwarzkopf, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

The mainstay of a leader is his character. Character is who you really are when all the covering is removed. Character is what you practice when you are alone. Your character is the summation of your beliefs and value. Your belief is what propels you to do what you do; your value is the wall which protects you from wrong influences. Your character is what determines whether people want to get close to you or avoid you. Character is not built overnight, it is built over time. A person of character is a person of commitment. A person of commitment is rooted and solid, and avoids the temptation of being swayed by every opinion or situation. A leader with a strong character is unlikely to sell out others because of the pressure of the moment, his strength of character shields him from ethical slips.

To develop strong character, uphold the following virtues:

Integrity – Doing the right thing irrespective of the situation or the persons involved.

Candour – Saying the truth, no matter whose ox is gored.

Loyalty – Staying true to the course you believe in, even in shifting times.


D – Discipline

Discipline is decision determined by vision and purpose. It is the bridge between aspiration and accomplishment. Successful leaders subject themselves to a regimen of restrictions and self-denials to achieve their set targets. They do the unpleasant but necessary tasks that will take them to the desired end. They spurn pleasurable but incapacitating activities that will take them off their predetermined end. They do not spare themselves; they keep pushing the frontiers and ensure they do whatever they need to do so that they can achieve the goals they have set for themselves.

Discipline is not imposed by external forces or interests on the leader; it is a measure he chooses to take after considering what he intends to accomplish; and bearing in mind everything he needs to achieve the feat. Everyone wants to be successful but not everyone is willing to pay the price for success. The price for success is discipline. Discipline has two components; doing what is not convenient but necessary and restraining oneself from what is convenient but largely a waste of time and effort.

Discipline requires determining the end from the beginning, focusing on the end from the beginning and not shifting from the end till the end.


E – Excellence

Excellence is exceeding set standards. In any human endeavour, there are set standards that separate success from failure; these are the irreducible minimum that can be tolerated from anyone or organization involved in any activity. Meeting the standard is nothing exceptional because it is expected. It is when the standards are exceeded that excellence is achieved.

For instance, customers have expectations which are hinged on acceptable minimum standards. However, to sustain customers’ patronage requires exceeding their basic expectations. For as long as these expectations are met, the customers have no complaint. However, meeting the customer’s basic expectation is not a guarantee for repeat patronage. What never stops to ensure the return of the customer is exceeding his expectations. Once the customer knows that he will get more than his bargain, he never stops his patronage. In addition to that, he becomes an evangelist who shares the ‘good news’ of his expectation being exceeded with others. It is having customers who are evangelists that separate a thriving organization from a struggling one and it is for this reason that leaders always endeavour to put in place a structure that encourages a culture of excellence.

The fulcrum of excellence is seeking continual improvement and putting the acquired knowledge to use. Excellence is driven by the belief that there is always a better way to do anything. There is nothing being done so well that it cannot be improved upon. Excellence is born when the quest to know more is met with the determination to put to use the newly acquired knowledge.


F – Failure

Failure is a fact of life. It is almost impossible to go through life without experiencing failure at one point or the other. Failure is one of the many steps on the ladder of success. In many cases, failure is the father of success. It is failure that points the way to success. Very often, those who fail the most make the most of success. Thomas Edison failed many times but his failures paved the way for the emergence of the electric bulb. The Wright brothers did not get the mechanism for flying an airplane right the moment they set out. But by failing, they found a better way of achieving their mission and the world has become a better place for it. Hence, great leaders never discard anyone because they failed once, twice or more. Knowing that failure is just a bend on the road to success, a leader who is worth the title helps those experiencing failure back on their feet.

Failure is neither fatal nor final. Failure often points attention to what is wrong and helps those willing to learn to correct this for better result at the next attempt. So, failure does not only result in the improvement of persons and organizations, it makes the world better. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of because it is a common denominator of those who long for greatness. A person is not a failure because he fails; he becomes a failure when he allows himself to be defeated by failure.

Michael Jordan, one of the best basketball players ever, said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games, 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”


G – Grit

Grit is an unrepentant resolve to succeed against all odds. It is a mindset that settles for nothing but what it set out to achieve. It is an unwavering commitment to goals. It is a belief that nothing is unachievable. It is a conviction in personal and organizational objectives. It is tenacity of purpose. Grit is being fastened to your goal through thick and thin. It is working to achieve your goals day after day, week after week, month after month. It is staying on course for as long as it takes to arrive at the finishing line. Hence, Angela Duckworth says grit is perseverance and passion for long-term goals.

Grit is what sustains the leader when everything else fails. It is what keeps the leader going when situation turns awry. It kept Abraham Lincoln going despite his many losses; it kept Nelson Mandela going in the prison for 27 years; it kept Winston Churchill going even when it appeared the war was already lost.

Grit gives people the push when they are down. As observed by Calvin Coolidge, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”


Robert Bruce and the spider

In 1306, Robert Bruce was crowned the King of Scotland but he was deposed the following year by King Edward I of England. He was forced into exile and sought refuge in a cave. While hiding in the cave, he was seriously discouraged and thought of giving up on fighting for his reinstatement to the throne. While rummaging about this, he saw a spider trying several times to build its web before eventually succeeding. This inspired him and he resolved not to let go of the throne without a fight. So, he mobilized his people and waged war against England. He defeated the English forces at the Battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314. It took him seven years but he got it done.


Last line

Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great. —Fernando Flores

To be continued.