Learnings from a leader

I sat in on a fascinating talk the other day given by a VP who heads up the China business for a major western industrial product business.  Whilst on the one hand it was a magisterial tour de force of the sheer size and scale and growth of the China market he is facing, it was also a masterclass of a leader at the top of his game.  It seemed useful to try and capture and then deconstruct and decipher how and why he gave such a strong leader’s talk.  What leadership characteristics did he show? 

(By the way, all names and addresses and details or reference to living persons have been altered!)

1.  Zoom in / zoom out:  

Leaders have the ability to do what may be seen as two conflicting things:  first is to see and master the big picture – the whole landscape in front of them (the ‘zoom out’); then, to ‘zoom in’ on, and show mastery of the details.  This VP knew all the numbers off the top of his head and could quickly and impressively put them down on flip chart, and use them to interactively drive discussions about issues, segments, trends, competition, market size, revenue opportunities and growth challenges, challenging his audience to know the numbers.  So, grasping the big picture but mastering the numbers is a key leadership capability 

2.  Critical thinking:  

Leaders need to be able to think critically, otherwise they don’t understand their true situation, and critical thinking means honest, brutal reality, not just hopes, pipe dreams and vapour.  This VP had looked hard at the Chinese market, and whilst China’s natural growth is already pretty interesting, he was honest enough to recognise that his company was way behind the curve compared to the competition and the extent of the challenge in front of them, and needs to grow much faster than the competition in order to catch up.  So leaders need to be able think critically about their situation and be realistic about what is and what is not needed to be done

3.  Vision: 

Leaders need to be able to lead their troops in a certain direction to a certain destination, and this demands a vision – a view into the long distance of where they want to get to.  But it’s not just a sense of which direction and destination, but a sense of what could be possible.  Imagine what could be possible.  Imagine and dare. 

So he has set an exceedingly ambitious and challenging growth target for his people, but he avoids the trap of making attaching unrealistic timescales to the target. So the vision and stretch targets become tantalising. They’re ambitious, impressive, amazing! Wow, is that really possible? But done over a medium to long-term horizon, maybe, just maybe it’s possible....? maybe what seems at first sight to be impossible could be possible? So he is setting ambitious, stretch targets and pushing the organisation to do better and go faster than they ever imagined before was possible. Leaders have a vision and demand stretch.

4.  Risk taking and courage: 

Real leaders to be need to take risks, even to be audacious, but there is always a fine line as to what risk the company will accept and what it will not.  So there’s a difference between talking risks and acting riskily.  Smart leaders therefore know the extent of the risk they can take, have well-attuned antenna to read the internal political situation, and chose carefully where to pick their fight.  So what might appear at first sight to be seemingly audacious or even outrageous at the time is nevertheless something which the leader calculates is ultimately possible, and the risks they take are in reality carefully calculated risks.

Risk-taking will often inevitably mean breaking the rules, or at least pushing them to the limits.  This VP’s advice was you can break the rules, but whatever you do, don’t touch the core values of the organisation.

Nevertheless, even taking calculated risks takes personal courage, and big growth requires a big portion of the company’s resources, which in turn creates resentment with the other leaders / peers, so leaders have to stand up and fight for what they believe in, and this requires personal courage. 

5. Resources and effort: 

A key task for leaders is to secure the resources (money, budgets, people, etc) which are needed for them to achieve their goals, so cajoling and pushing for resources, and mobilising and federating stakeholders and others to support them is critical for the leader’s eventual success.  This requires perseverance and energy.   They also know what their ME (Main effort) is or should be, so they are careful to maximise the resources when they do get them, and they know exactly where they should put their precious resources to get maximum impact or breakthrough.  So leaders need persistence, determination to get the resources they need, and focus and discipline in how and where to use them.

6.  Make complex things seems simple: 

As we saw earlier, leaders have the ability to look at the big picture, and also master the detail, but whilst they may have the capacity to master all they survey, lesser humans will usually struggle to grasp the situation so easily.  So leaders make it simple for their troops.  In an army, it might by something simple like:  “The enemy have occupied the hill in front of us and are dominating the battlefield – our job is to attack and capture the hill from them”.  In business, leaders often resort to stories, anonyms, synonyms and metaphors:  “We are a tanker and we need to be a speedboat” (Jack Welch); “Customer is Boss” (AG Laffley), and so on.   

This VP had his own version.  20:20:20, which means 20% growth, with 20% profit by 2020.  This abbreviation (20:20:20) becomes a slogan, a call-to-action, and serves as a very simple, quick, easy to grasp, memorable way to capture everything he wants his organisation to achieve.  And of course, it’s something that can be easily grasped and understood right down to the lower levels of the organisation (the shop floor, the operatives, the technicians, the back office staff, and so on).  So make things simple.

7.  Show the way forward:   

Whilst the final target is extremely demanding and ambitious, many will wonder how on earth this is possible for them, because the height of the mountain and the steepness of the ascent seem overwhelming.  So leaders need to show the way forward, so that their organisations can start to believe that the apparently overwhelming and daunting target is in fact achievable.  This VP’s solution is to break the final target down into smaller, manageable pieces.  Broken down into bite-sized chunks, the huge final target seems maybe just possible.  (Question “How do you eat an elephant?”  Answer:  “In small chunks”).   So where will the 20% growth come from?  By itself it’s huge.  But if 5% comes from expanding internal operations, 5% from 3rd party channels, 5% from new products and 5% from something else, then maybe it is just possible.  So break things down into steps, stages and manageable, doable, imaginable morsels  

8.  Communication:  

Communication and leadership are synonymous, mutual bedfellows.  How can you lead and inspire, if you can’t communicate?  If you show you can communicate well, then you have a chance to lead.  So good communications skills are critical for leaders.  Strong communicators have presence.  They have impact.  They challenge, they provoke.  They attract.   They inspire.  Whilst the ‘big picture / master the details’ are a key component of communicating (because they shows the leader is in control of the situation and therefore credible), so is the ‘common touch’ – the ability to speak to the shop floor on terms and in a language which they understand and which has relevance and resonance for them.  Lastly, this VP emphasised the sheer effort required in communication, particularly the importance of face-to-face communication, not ducking it by just sending emails    

9.  Charisma / presence: 

Whilst this VP clearly had (has) obvious and considerable charisma and presence, it’s worth reflecting how this is and where it comes from.  Whilst there is the school of thought that charisma is something you are born with (or not), another school of thought is that charisma can be developed and grown - coming from status, from success, from power and so on.  So being successful and having success is something which in itself can bring an aura of charisma and presence, so it becomes a sort of upward, virtuous circle.  Thus the leader, through his successes and obvious upward career trajectory becomes charismatic.   In this paradigm, a leader doesn’t necessarily need to be born with charisma, but acquires or develops it, becoming charismatic over time.


Much is written about leadership but it was good to ‘see a leader in action’.  There are lessons here for us all.               

Posted on: Wednesday, March 11, 2015