by Claire Huang

Claire Huang shared what she has learned through her wide range of leadership experiences in marketing, communications, and brand management at the opening seminar for MHI’s mentoring 2015-16 year. Many of the attendees have asked for a copy of the talk. Working with Claire, we have adapted her lecture notes into narrative form and are happy to offer them to you below.

So much great work has been produced and written on leadership. Drawing on this prior work, I have selected five areas of leadership that I believe have the most impact. The way I remember them is by thinking about the qualities of a simple lead pencil.  

The most important quality of a great leader and a pencil is what is inside.

Great leaders are persons of integrity, with high standards. Their actions are based on a sound moral groundwork.  People can see when you do the right thing, whether it is something very small or something larger.  A good way to develop your vision of what leadership with integrity means is to read books about great men and women. 

Great leaders are disciplined. They exercise self-discipline but also require discipline of their teams. They have standards for behavior, communicate these, and give those working with them honest feedback.  

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's movement for independence from Britain, is a great example of a true leader with both discipline and high standards. Gandhi exercised non-violent civil disobedience and has served as an inspiration for freedom causes all over the world. He was imprisoned repeatedly for his teachings. He undertook lengthy fasts as protest and also as a means of self-purification. Gandhi focused on self-awareness as well as discipline. As you grow in self-awareness you will begin to understand why you feel what you feel and why you behave as you behave. This enables you to have better control over your thoughts, words, and actions.

Great leaders focus on supporting others. Leaders who are supportive sense and understand how other people feel and show a sincere interest in those around them. They build trust and inspire their colleagues to overcome challenges. They foster efficiency and focus on eliminating fears. This helps to prevent colleagues from engaging in internal rivalry and conflict. Jack Welch, the celebrated former CEO of General Electric, said, "Before you are leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others." 

The second thing that a leader and a pencil have in common is that they sometimes make mistakes. But sometimes we can erase them. Making mistakes is part of life. The best leaders face up to the facts, engage others in the issue, and move ahead to correct their mistakes. Problems do not age well. Great leaders have the fortitude to confront problematic issues promptly and move forward in spite of them. 

Great leaders, like pencils, experience sharpening. In other words, they are honed and made more effective by adversity and change. If you are a great leader, you will use that sharpening to make you better. Great leaders understand that problems will arise, but they are expert at solving problems effectively and then using what they have learned to make their teams and themselves better. Before making decisions, make sure you gather relevant information, get input from all concerned parties, and analyze the information. This is important for everyday issues as well as larger ones. 

Pope Francis is known for his warmth, his humility, and his desire to avoid fanfare. He moved out of the traditional suite in the Apostolic Palace into a small apartment in the Vatican guesthouse. Here he lives simply, avoiding special privileges and attention. What he is less known for is his ability to solve problems quickly and decisively. He made major changes in the Vatican bank, replacing the boards of the bank and its main regulatory body with respected business people from around the globe. Although there has been pushback from entrenched interests at the Vatican, Francis has not been easily influenced. He gets information on important church personnel and organizations from a variety of sources instead of relying on a few insiders. Operating budgets are carefully managed to ensure that as much money as possible can go to charity. 

For both a pencil and a leader to function effectively, it is important to be held in someone else’s hand. For people of faith, it is about being alert to the presence of God and trying to align one’s actions and decisions with His will. It is also about choosing trusted mentors, developing productive connections, and seeking different perspectives. Great leaders actively seek input from others on how to improve performance. They use this input, together with their own insights, to differentiate and calibrate issues, sifting out the less important from the more important. Leaders who do well in this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone. 

Abraham Lincoln, without question one of the great leaders in history, surrounded himself with people, including his rivals, who had strong ambitions and who felt free to question his authority. For example, Lincoln brought Salmon Chase into his cabinet as treasury secretary, knowing that Chase craved the presidency for himself and was repeatedly undermining him with other cabinet members and Congress. So long as he was doing a good job at his post, that was more important than personal feelings. But Lincoln’s motive was not just to put rivals in positions of power, his intention was to choose the ablest people for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence and self-confidence to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company. 

Finally, great leaders want to make a mark. Great leaders have a vision, a purpose. They have meaning in their lives. Daniel Pink, a noted author on motivation, talks about three areas that motivate people. The first is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, or autonomy.  The second is the desire or impulse to learn and create new things, or mastery. The third is the wish to do better by ourselves and our world which he calls purpose or meaning. Find a purpose that is outside of yourself, one that is bigger that what you can achieve for yourself and speaks to what can you achieve for the greater good.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was focused on helping the poor. In addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, the nuns in her order take a fourth vow to give "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor." She expanded the idea of poverty, saying, "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty." She helped us realize that loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

Successful businesses, too, have a strong sense of purpose. Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Apple is about challenging the status quo. Purpose- driven companies outperformed the Standard & Poor 500 by 10 times from 1996 to 2011. If you find a larger purpose in your life and your work, one that benefits not only you, but also society, others will join you in your quest.

Having a vision is one thing, but the next thing is to operate with a focus on results. Leadership is not only about developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives, but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the work that has the highest value.

To summarize the areas that make great leaders:

Great leaders focus on what is inside: strong integrity, discipline, supporting others.

Great leaders make mistakes, admit them, and have the fortitude to continue and learn.

Great leaders understand that they will experience sharpening through adversity, but they don't just endure, they use what they've learned to do better 

Great leaders understand that they also need to be held in someone's hand; they collaborate to understand different perspectives. 

Great leaders have a bigger purpose in their lives. And this purpose drives them to do good not just for themselves and their families for but society. A bigger purpose. What is yours?