We often associate inspirational leadership with individuals leading nations or armies into war. It's easy, given that common perception, to underestimate the importance of leadership in small business success. Even small teams need someone to point the way. Some of the most capable and inspirational leaders that I have met are small business owners. Leading a small business to success is a tricky endeavour and involves much more than simply performing or ensuring the performance of the various tasks involved in running your business day to day. In small businesses there is no place to hide and the owner invariably will set the tone and direction of the business. You are visible to every team member you work with and your leadership will have a significant impact upon the organisation for good or for bad. Once we have accepted the truism that organisations rarely rise above the level of their leadership, small business owners with ambitions of building a great business must address the question of what makes a great leader in the context of small business?
My studies on this topic and life experiences to this point have revealed that great leaders always seem to embody two seemingly disparate qualities. They are simultaneously highly visionary and highly practical. As John C Maxwell says in his classic book on the subject, "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of leadership", great leaders possess an understanding of how:
Mission provides purpose - answering the question "Why?"
Strategy provides a plan - answering the question "How?"
Vision provides a picture - answering the question "What?"
Great businesses are built by great leaders who have successfully instilled an understanding of why, how and what throughout their organisations.
Simon Sinek points out in his book "Start With Why" that the almost every employee in every business on earth understands "what" the company they work in does to some degree. Many also have a good idea of "how" they do it, whether that be understanding their differentiating value proposition or their proprietary processes. Many companies, however, are lacking in purpose, with most employees unaware of "why" they do what they do beyond the obvious idea that it is in an attempt to make a profit for the owners. There is enormous power in a burning "why" within an organisation. Jim Rohn said that if your "why" is big enough, you will find the how for getting whatever you wish in life. Nobody within an organisation can create an authentic, burning "why" outside of the company leadership team and it often stems, if it exists at all, from the company founder and their intent in creating this business. Mission statements might not be quite as fashionable today as they where ten or fifteen years ago, but the power of purpose is just as important as it has always been in business, perhaps doubly so for small businesses. Great leaders have a strong, readily identifiable purpose or mission that informs everything that they and their organisations do.
Strategic planning grounds the why and what and describes how you intend to get from where you are to where you see yourself in the future. It is the step by step realisation of a leaders vision. In my experience, the best plans within small businesses are the product of back from the future thinking. In other words, having a clear vision of where you want your small business to be in three or five years time, you then ask yourself exactly what you will need to do in the coming weeks and months to get there. You map out the significant milestones and attach specific dates to them. You share responsibility for the achievement of these milestones and clearly define accountability. Lao-Tzu, the Chinese sage, said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Your strategic planning clearly defines the direction of that next step, as well as the first mile, next ten miles and first hundred miles and beyond. It is this ability to translate their vision into highly practical and specific steps and stages that characterises the truly great leader. Nobody can follow a path that they cannot see and a company's strategic plan provides just that.
Hans Finzel once observed "Leaders are paid to be dreamers. The higher up you go in leadership, the more your work is about the future". The difficulty in organisations is that their followers often cannot envision the future as the leader does. Leaders are stewards of their vision and therefore have a responsibility to bridge the vision gap between them and their followers. The temptation is many leaders simply to comminicate about their vision. This is important as without effective communication, the picture is not clear. Just talking about the vision, even when this is done clearly, creatively and continually, is not enough. The leader must live and embody the vision if the picture is to come alive. As Emerson so aptly put it, "who you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say". What we are communicates far more eloquently and persuasively than what we say or even what we are seen to do and all great leaders embody in a very real way their vision of the future.
Being able to answer the fundamental questions of "why", "how" and "what" for your small business and then committing yourself to the realisation of these ideals is the essence of small business leadership. As I said in my previous blog post, many small business owners leadership is often ineffectual because they have never really grappled with any of these core business questions. Sometimes, small business owners benefit from a sounding board as they try to lead their businesses. Here at Continuous Business Planning, we have the requisite small business experience to guide you through this process of discovery. Feel free to contact us today for a free, confidential discussion about the efficacy of your small business leadership.