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What It Means To Be A Great Leader

How principles of faith helped this CEO grow a once-troubled bank from $250 million to $20 billion in assets during his 10-year tenure.

Leadership is about living your values through your actions. Being authentic, always standing up for what is true and right, the equality of all human beings, and giving to others in need, regardless of their sex, religion, race, national origin or creed, are the central tenets of Sikhism. It’s not simply a religion, but a way of life. My commitment to these principles infuses every facet of my life, including my business relationships and leadership philosophy.

To Be a Great Leader, You Must First Be a Great Human Being

The best leaders are those who are the best human beings. They are emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually mature and fulfilled, whatever their definition of fulfillment or happiness may be. This is the overarching principle by which I live my life and run my businesses.

It is essential to develop self-awareness to both understand your behavior and its impact on others, and to understand their behavior and perspectives. Listening to diverse views and accepting feedback are hallmarks of mature people, which is a prerequisite for effective leadership.

To be innovative, a company must focus on its people, collaboration, cooperation, and mutual trust and understanding. Being a leader means having the responsibility for motivating and inspiring. It means setting an example. To do so effectively, it is necessary to cultivate your EQ or emotional intelligence with the interpersonal skills inherent in respecting others, listening very carefully, taking their points of view into account, and communicating in a constructive manner. Great leaders are great human beings who have strengths in IQ and EQ, who are adaptable, and who are committed to continuous lifelong learning.

Being a great leader requires empathy, active listening, to be trusting and respectful, to be there for others in need, and to honestly say what you mean and do what you say.

And the number one quality: be authentic and passionate about what you do!

Holistic Leadership

Combining personal and professional development is indispensable to being a great leader. There are four essential traits that I’m passionate about. Great leaders apply these four principles within their organizations.

• First, clarity about mission or purpose. My father’s mindset as a military leader taught me the importance of defining your vision and the strategic steps required to achieve it. That’s the responsibility of a leader. A great leader is skilled at setting the direction and operational foundation for the organization. Some thinkers and educators use different terminology to express this concept, for example, “goal” refers to the long-term mission, and “objective” refers to the measurable steps to reach it.

The key is to set milestones to reach along the way and continually evaluate your progress. Furthermore, everyone on your team must be clear about the mission so that all members are equipped to give the same answer to the question, “What is our mission?” Team members also need to understand their role in fulfilling it. This knowledge creates alignment.

• Second, internal mastery. Leaders must be experts in internal mastery, meaning aware of what is happening in areas they can control, including themselves. What are we good at and not good at? What are our strengths and weaknesses? How are we using our systems? Are we selecting the right people and assigning them to the right roles? Are we effectively encouraging and building people? Most importantly, are we focusing on the three or four things that will get us the best results?

All these questions require awareness and reflection. They promote engagement. Sometimes, it’s necessary to pivot and change course, so a leader must encourage agility to achieve the best outcomes.

• Third, external mastery. Just as leaders need to be aware of the internal environment, they need to understand the external environment. Factors outside their control affect them tremendously. This holds true for sports, companies, and even relationships. Change is a constant, and adaptation is a key requirement.

A great leader can adapt to factors outside their control. How is the economy? What are state-of-the-art technological advances? How are customers’ expectations changing? How is the media influencing trends? Most significantly, what are the opportunities, and what are the threats? Awareness of the external environment, like awareness of your internal environment, must also translate into pivoting when necessary.

• And last, passion for continuous improvement. Lifelong learning in the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual domains is an essential trait for becoming a mature human being. Happier people and superlative leaders exhibit this passion for learning.

The KISS Factor

Another essential quality of a superlative leader is the ability to take complex ideas and make them simple. Much like a military mission commander must focus on what matters most, business leaders must focus on what’s critical. A business will thrive if the leader articulates a clear, measurable vision and mission, along with a strategy to achieve it, and defines four or five key success factors that will make 90 percent of the difference. In contrast, setting dozens of goals often makes a company rudderless and yields mediocrity

The 7-S for Success

How do you assess whether you’re doing a good job? In their book In Search of Excellence, authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman examine how some companies succeed, while others fail in the same industry. They developed 7-S, a set of ideals that successful company leaders should focus on that need to be aligned throughout the organization and continually evaluated.

The 7-Ss of Peter’s and Waterman’s model are: (1) strategy, (2) staff, (3) skillset, (4) systems, (5) style, (6) structure, and (7) shared values. I’ve added an eighth component that you’re familiar with by now: self-assessment. Just as people need to engage in self-assessment to develop and improve, business leaders need to engage in organizational assessment to grow.

Let’s examine each parameter more closely.

Strategy. Is there absolute clarity about your strategy? Are there appropriate benchmarks in place to evaluate whether the company is moving in the right direction?

Staff. Do you have the right people in the right roles? How are teams functioning? Are your employees furthering or stymying your mission? Are they engaged?

Skillset. Do your staff members possess the right skill sets? Are there gaps in their competencies? These questions do not refer to the company’s various job descriptions. That’s the function of management. A leader ensures that jobs are getting done by people who have the skills to get them done.

Systems. Are your systems relevant to your mission? Will they help to execute it? This broad parameter ranges from manufacturing systems to communication systems to compensation systems. Each dimension needs to be appropriate, efficient, and effective. 

Style. How does your company manage its people? How do you communicate with them? Are you encouraging a culture that both facilitates your goals and honors it’s people?

Structure. What is the company’s hierarchy? Will the organizational structure facilitate the achievement of your mission? Who reports to whom? How do employees interact? Are your teams cohering?

Shared values. What is the company’s culture? What are its priorities? Are the values strong across all strata of the organization? Is there mutual trust and respect?

Self Assessment requires continually asking the right questions before, during, and after. But that’s not enough. Once you’ve determined the answers, it’s imperative to reflect and correct.

Leadership is a highly interpersonal endeavor; after all, leaders lead people. Extraordinary leaders are fully present and empathetically responsive. Leadership is often confused with management. (Many graduate schools of business, even prestigious universities, emphasize the word “management” in their names.) Some mistakenly believe that leadership skills are something that you’re born with. But NO! They can be taught, developed, and continually improved.


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