Are leaders made, or do they emerge?
Much emphasis is placed on leadership. What is leadership? Is leadership a skill that can be taught or is it, rather, something so innate that its possessor may not even be aware of its existence until circumstances compel them to action?
There are different types of leaders, as varied as the individuals that accept the role. Therein lies one of the keys to leadership. It requires that the person be true to themselves, their values, their character. Genuine leaders possess an inner conviction of who they are as well as a moral compass and, therefore, cannot be compromised, deterred, or swayed.
The expression of leadership is as varied as the leaders themselves. Some leaders act, others inspire. Some issue fiery rhetoric while others exude a quiet confidence and competence. Think about your organization. Who are the unassuming leaders that are sought out for advice, problem solving, or conflict resolution?
Another common theme is selflessness, a concern and compassion for others. A true leader cares about the people around them and feels responsible for their well-being. They may know names, ask about and remember details about family. An interesting characteristic of leaders is that, while they hold themselves accountable for any negative impacts or consequences, they credit those around them with any achievements. In other words, ego is harnessed for the vision, but set aside for accolades. Leaders acknowledge and empower those around them.
Empowering others means, in part, letting go of control. To do this, the leader must believe in and trust others. They must also tolerate failure, a vital step in empowerment. Providing support for others to realize the vision in their own way through harnessing their own values, strengths, and skills, can reinforce commitment to the vision and invite innovation.
Leaders earn the respect, admiration, trust, and loyalty of those around them by “walking the talk.” A level of competence and intellect must also be present. Leaders do not ask anyone to do what they would not do. They understand and accept risk, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder rather than asking someone to take their place while they observe safely from the sidelines. There are no sidelines for a leader. At the same time, others may choose to stand with the leader and follow them, regardless of risk.
While consistency, the ability for others to rely on a leader’s words, action, and values, is important, it must not be confused with the absence of change. Change is a given and a leader must appreciate the context of that change, including analysis for external opportunities and threats and compassion for the impact of change on staff and stakeholders. A leader’s ability to steadily navigate through change also depends on the leader’s ability to quickly adapt and adjust course based on new information.
Adherence to values, authenticity, tolerance for risk, and compassion may be innate characteristics of leadership, but what about creating and communicating a vision and empowering others? Creating a vision is sometimes more about removing blocks and giving oneself permission to dream. What would it take to set aside current obstacles and imagine optimal Procurement?
Communicating a vision implies the ability to clearly and persuasively tell the story and capture the imagination and passion of others. How does this work in Procurement? There is much discussion over communicating the strategic value of procurement. To do this, one must imagine optimal procurement and how it relates to the mission and vision of the entity. One must then tell the story that connects Procurement’s placement and function with achieving the entity’s mission and vision.
Communication also extends to the ability to listen. Leaders then provide what is needed for the empowerment of others and realization of the goal. Empowerment requires creation of a nonjudgmental space where each person is appreciated for who they are and what they contribute. Essential ingredients include trust, respect, and tolerance. People must feel free to voice their thoughts. How often have you been in a group where you or someone else started to say something, but decided against it. What was in the way? Did the thought seem too insignificant or too controversial and not worth the blowback? The mere fact of being able to give voice to thoughts can be more important sometimes than what is said. We must remember, too, that values and principles underlie our thoughts and that productive conversations will unearth and hold them up to the light. Adequate time and space must also be provided for thoughts to emerge and develop. The ultimate expression of these thoughts may give voice to a new understanding or solution.
Are values, authenticity, tolerance for risk, and compassion strictly innate? Are values not, in part, the result of experience? Wouldn’t frugality, for example, become prized if it helped you survive the economic crash of 2008? Couldn’t authenticity be nurtured by a supportive, safe environment that encouraged you to be true to and express yourself? Wouldn’t compassion be strengthened if you lived through hardship or became intimately involved with people that were suffering? Don’t we try to imbue our children with compassion by providing them with opportunities to offer service to others?
What is leadership? It’s the ability to serve others in a way that empowers those we serve. Many of the characteristics, or competencies, of leadership such as strategy, critical thinking, and communication can be learned. NIGP offers a variety of leadership development courses designed to empower future leaders with the tools and skills they need to advance their career and the public procurement profession.
Lisa Premo, NIGP Global Practices Manager, collaborates with public procurement practitioners and academics to conduct research and develop useful guidance on public procurement topics.