PHILADELPHIA—Is there a secret sauce to being a leader?
While CEOs and others at a recent conference agreed there’s not one perfect leadership style, they also said one of the hallmarks is being adaptive.
“The world is coming at you at 110 miles an hour, and being able to draw on the resources that you have in order to navigate some pretty difficult circumstances that are highly complex requires that capability of being adaptive,” Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell’s Soup Co., said during the June 19, 2013, Wharton Leadership Conference at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
More than 300 business and HR leaders from around the world gathered for the 17th annual one-day conference to gain insight into the latest thinking on key leadership issues. The event was hosted by the Wharton Center for Human Resources and the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.
There are times when leaders need to be “command and control and the boss and make the call,” and times when they should step back and be in “listening mode,” gathering data, and say, “‘I’m really going to understand before I get on to what the action is,’ ” Morrison said.
The key is being able to toggle between situations and adjust one’s style in an authentic way.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, chief and senior leader of the U.S. Army Reserve and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve Command, said the future requires a new kind of leader to solve tough problems.
“Traditional leadership is just not going to be enough,” Talley warned. “The next generation of leaders is going to have to be a leader coupled with someone with entrepreneurship skills.
You’ve got to stay ahead of disrupting impacts, and you’ve got to be able to combine that leadership and entrepreneurship regardless of where you operate.”
Have a Personal Mission
Morrison, a founding director of the CEO-led Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s effort to reduce obesity, said leaders need a personal mission. Morrison wrote her mission statement in 1994, which is to serve as a leader, live a balanced life, and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference. She said it has changed little since then.
As a leader, it’s critical to “be really grounded in who you are and what you stand for” if you want people to follow, she said.
Maintain Balance, Practice Humility
Leadership is a combination of style and substance, with humor being an important element.
“You find yourself in very serious situations, and you have to be able to take a step back and lighten up a bit, not only for yourself but for the people you’re leading,” Morrison said. “Sometimes I have to step back and say, ‘We’re talking about V8 juice here—get perspective!’ ”
Speakers also emphasized that it’s important to maintain balance and to practice humility. Leaders—even great ones—can get tripped up and self-destruct. Reached a level where everyone thinks you’re wonderful? “Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid,” Talley said.
Be a Holistic Kind of Leader
As the United Nation’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency-relief coordinator, Valerie Amos regularly faces serious and horrific events, including the recent bombing in Mogadishu, the crisis in Syria and natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.
“It’s the most challenging job I’ve ever done,” Amos said. “It’s a fantastic job. It’s the most exhausting job I’ve ever done. And, sometimes, it’s the most frustrating job I’ve ever done.”
Amos oversees a large and complex organization. Situations change all the time. She said the key is to be “really clear about what the challenges of the future are.” But, she admitted, “Sometimes it’s like driving a car and having to change the wheel at the same time.”
Amos described herself as “a holistic” leader: “I think I know almost intuitively what is needed at certain times.” She works frequently with groups such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, which might need to be onsite in a moment’s notice.
The challenge is driving an agenda for change.
“Sometimes you have to put yourself out there and lead … and sometimes you have to step back and let some processes take a bit of time,” Amos said. “I don’t think I have a secret sauce. But I’m focused, very clear and tend to know what I want. And I think I help people understand how to get there.”
Keep Employees Engaged and Motivated
Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, agreed that leaders can get pulled in so many directions with “the crisis du jour” that without “purpose-driven leadership” they can easily become distracted and go down the wrong road.
Standout leaders make sure they’re connected with and articulate their vision for the organization, he said. Being accessible, real and approachable is more important than ever.
Successful top executives make sure everyone knows—and is focused on—what’s important because, “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” Gorsky said.
Talley said leading is about commitment, competence and character. “Character is the most important, by far,” he observed. “If you have a character flaw, in my opinion, you can’t be a leader.”
Talley said the primary purpose of a leader is to cultivate other leaders.
Understand organizational climate. Culture and habits drive behavior. Like it or not, a company will take on the personality of the leader or leadership team. “If you tend to be pessimistic or a little negative, I guarantee your organization will take on that personality over time,” Talley said.
Disrupt technology. It’s not a question of whether an organization’s technology or business processes will get interrupted, but when and by whom. Leaders should create a culture that allows people to invest in themselves and in the organization, Gorsky said, “so they can disrupt themselves … with new technology and new ideas that are productive.” He added that leaders should always focus on where they can improve while avoiding the latest leadership fad.
“Be yourself,” Gorsky advised. “It’s the best person, and it’s the best leader you know how to be.”
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. To read the original article on SHRM.org, please click here.