May 25, 2016 Frank Olsson

Book Chapter – Depth and Spirit

A ny company or organisation which is focused solely on money is out of touch with the times. The need for financial returns must be contextualised. American businesses often seem to pursue their ends with impressive focus and vigour, but with too much weight on short-term financial returns.

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, talks about the importance of spirit in his epic novel, War and Peace. The great generals never aimed a gun or killed a man. Everything was done by their soldiers, who killed their enemies in obedience to the spirit imposed by the leader. Deciding the outcome was the spirit of the men, their greater or lesser eagerness to face danger and fight, quite irrespective of the genius of generals. Tolstoy goes onto say “

The strength of an army depends on the spirit that animates it and victory is the outcome of the feelings that dwell in every soldier.”

Leadership is about encouraging and building that spirit. Our mind wants to understand which factors decide this imponderable spirit. However, it isn’t that simple, as it varies from person to person and it may well be the sum of many small things rather than a few key attributes. Competence, confidence, caring, convincing and consideration are all factors that help build authority and loyalty. These qualities are not spin-offs or ‘nice-to-haves’; they are key aspects of leadership. Good leadership is about evoking the fire within more than a matter of using force or incentive, the whip or the carrot. Often authenticity is paramount, i.e. showing who you are, naturally and without pretence, levelling with people and telling them the way it is. Leaders must show more concern for their people than for themselves.

Some people are naturally good at leadership, but no matter what your natural ability is, you can always improve by understanding what works and what tends to bring success. The key is to grasp the fact that people provide the leverage, and that if you cannot build and mobilise a contagious sense of energy and enthusiasm you may not be suitable to manage and lead. You can never compensate a lack of staff morale or commitment by shouldering a bigger input yourself. You have to stop being a soldier and assume the role of a director, as in conducting an orchestra. This may be quite contrary to what brought you success as a hands-on, hard-working expert.

When you have a leadership role, people must be your absolute focus, as opposed to what you can produce and deliver yourself. Leaders work through other people. Many struggle to accept this, but I have always felt that if I need to write anything genial I can do it at home or during ‘down time’. It is a mistake to close your door and block out your people – staff or customers – while you work at something, because these two groups are the purpose of your work and everything else is a means to succeed to that end. Occasionally you can boost morale by also being a soldier, putting the shoulder to the wheel, but this must be the exception rather than the rule.

Spirit is not so much related to competence and expertise, although a good dose of those qualities can be helpful. Spirit is related to how people feel, which in turn is related to their emotions and inner life. How do you influence or appeal to people’s inner life? It is not easy and usually outside the realms of the business school curricula. What is required is a need to study philosophy and increase your understanding of the human condition. You need to like people and enjoy human interaction. One twist of the golden rule is: It is unlikely that others will think more of you than you think of them. To get people positive and energised and loyal you need to look after them, appreciate them and aspire to like them. If you don’t like children you probably shouldn’t be a parent and if you don’t like people you shouldn’t be entrusted with staff.

The ultimate spirit comes when people – all the people – find it in themselves to enjoy their work and want to succeed for their own reasons. Making a difference and getting recognised for it makes a person’s day. Thus the leader needs to make a habit of recognising achievement and thank people for making a difference. This is not something you do once a month or once a year. It must be engrained in the work culture, be a daily and hourly focus and a priority of the leader.

Getting this third dimension right is often the difference between excellence and average and therefore is the test of good leadership. Once we understand human spirit and are able to express it and share it with our people we can move mountains.

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