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You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink ... unless you know how! I'll share the secret with you

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink ... unless you know how! I'll share the secret with you

June 22, 2009

When you think of great leaders you probably think of stoic figures such as Winston Churchill, General George C. Patton and Abraham Lincoln. But the truth is that they were rarely on the battlefield or in the trenches leading anyone. They were invisible to the very people they were leading, but here's my point ' they were still leading.

Truly great leaders are invisible. Why is that important? Because when you're an invisible leader, your freedom team will be driven to succeed with or without you in the room.

In truth, what's most important about your workers and your network is not what they say about you in front of you, nor what they say behind your back. What's even more important is what they DO behind your back that counts the most. However, few leaders ever reach that level of effectiveness. In his best-selling book, Good to Great, Jim Collins categorizes leadership into different levels, by setting up the paths of leadership as a five-level hierarchy. (Please see page siedbar)

There are many types of leaders, each of whom leads on a different level and in a different way. Some lead just small projects or small groups, while others are exceptional, executive leaders, who guide the direction of an entire company.

The highest level of leadership, and one that you want to attain, is the Invisible Leader. This leader is humble, yet knows how to lead others to act, without having to force or cajole. He selflessly works for the company, while powerfully leading his team towards greater success.

We all know that the secret of leading a horse to water and then making him drink is to first make him thirsty by putting salt in his oats. The drive of a great leader is to create that thirst. The ability to recognize what makes people act is a power that's harnessed by a great leader ' an invisible leader. Truly great leaders, those leaders who are invisible, can lead the direction of their companies even in their absence and long after they are gone.

Jim Collins cites Coleman Mockler, CEO of Gillette from 1975-1991, as a great leader who had a powerful sense of humility, and worked very hard for his company. Although he could have pocketed millions and would have been able to retire early when Revlon bid to buy them out, Mockler knew that this wasn't in the long-term interests of Gillette. As Collins recounts the story, Mockler fought hard to prevent that take-over, and the existence of Mach3 is the result. Mockler was known to be 'more of a work horse than a show horse.' Because of this balance of humility and personal strength, he was an invisible leader that others were motivated to follow.


Small Commitments, Big Commitments

Commitments are the backbone of great leadership. Only say what you'll do, and do what you'll say. This is one of the greatest principles that you can learn. If you can simply make a promise and fulfill that promise, that alone will help drive your company!

One terrific example of this sort of commitment comes out of the tumultuous banking and finance industry. Capital One's chief human resources officer Matt Schuyler has maintained his promise to keeping company employees upbeat, and he's done this in a number of creative ways. For starters, they can telecommute, are given a company laptop, BlackBerry and iPod, and when they do work from one of a number of offices, they can choose to plunk down at a desk, in a booth, on a couch, or in a special 'quiet zone' designed to eliminate distractions. Capital One calls this its Future of Work project.

Schuyler says the main reason for the 4,000 iPods now in employees' hands is so they can download any of 10,000 different courses, many of them from Harvard and other top B-schools, as well as to tune in to internal company information like quarterly updates from the CFO. Since Capital One rolled out the Future of Work during black October last year to 40 percent of its workforce, in-house surveys say employee satisfaction has risen 41 percent.

As Jim Collins writes in his book, Built to Last, the truly visionary companies (with invisible leaders) are able to succeed so well because of their decision to work towards a goal and their great commitment at achieving that goal.

Walt Disney is a great example of one such committed visionary. He dreamed of doing things no one else had ever tried doing before him, and he was committed to succeed. In the 1930's he made the first full-length animated feature film, and in the 1950's and 1960's, he created new kinds of amusement parks, like Disneyland and Epcot Center. Despite walking in uncharted territory, Disney kept working until he found success. Because of his great commitment, we have all the Disney products and parks today.

Another great visionary, even though no one knew much about him until he was named the richest man in America in 1985, was the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. Most people now know the story of how he started his massive chain of stores with a few variety stores in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, but few know that he paved the way for discount retailers in the 1960s.

His crusade began at age 44 as an already rich entrepreneur. He continued for the rest of his life as he pushed relentlessly to drive costs down in the stores, in the manufacturers' profit margins and with the middlemen so he could continue to drive his prices down farther and farther. He was always thinking ahead. When he had 20 stores, he recruited the smartest guy in the class at an IBM school to put computerized merchandise controls in place. That was 1966 and Wal-Mart went on to become the icon of just-in-time inventory control. His legacy continues as Wal-Mart pushes to put in place Radio Frequency Identification Technology that allows the giant retailer to track every piece of merchandise as it moves through the retail chain. This way management can track sales and order additional inventory in real-time. Once again, the retailer ' still led by Sam Walton's vision ' is changing how business is run.

Make sure you always following through on your commitments. This is what makes a great leader'an INVISIBLE LEADER.


The 5-Level Hierarchy of Leadership

Level 1 ' Subject matter expert. Although the person is master of a particular job or area, it is the lowest level of leadership.
Level 2 ' Team leader who gets along well with others, communicates and can integrate his talents and skills with others to accomplish the goals of the group.
Level 3 ' Manager who blends together the resources available to him with the various skill sets of the different people working for him.
Level 4 ' Great leader who has insight, and is often feared and revered. Great leaders are spoken about often because their presence is so well known.
Level 5 ' Invisible leader who is humble, yet knows how to lead others to act, without having to force or cajole.

Adapted from the book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, by James C. Collins. New York: Harper Business, Harper Collins Publishers, 2001