A meander through a bookshop is always good fodder for covetousness. This weekend my favourite foodies, Allan Campion and Michelle Curtis’ new kitchen companion has jump started my Christmas list. I was less taken by the newest collection of business leadership material. Not because it is any less read-worthy, I think I’m just getting jaded. Is there anything new under the sun?

What is leadership anyway? Or more importantly, why does it remain such an important topic?

I think of it as the capacity to create a reality for people that would not have otherwise existed. It remains a critical skill because there are more and more arenas for which more of the same will not be good enough.

I thought the cover of last week’s Economist was brilliant. The swankering, thoughtful (then) presidential nominee captured on a blank canvas. What a picture of leadership!

But it is equally appropriate to learn about leadership in more mundane contexts. For example, peddling home from the gym yesterday morning, I was contemplating the day ahead … nothing particularly compelling or attractive. An opportunity to create a different reality, which in the end turned out to be a simple picnic with Maria and two of our kids on the waterfront at Williamstown. Extremely pleasant.

One of the things I love about Maria is her belief in choice; the idea that there are a multitude of options available. There are two things that prevent us from making creative and liberating decisions:

1. We are comfortable and stuck at the same time … it is so much easier to keep doing the same thing.

2. We are typically reluctant to embrace the consequences and risks associated with alternative choices.

We could move to the country. We could change jobs. We could consume less. We could branch out. We could develop a new product, or even a new way of doing business. Things do not have to be this way. In this society, money usually ends up being king, the reason we don’t do stuff. Of course money is needed for certain choices, but we give it too much control.

Leadership is impossible if we believe that the current reality is a given. Leaders do not take tomorrow as a given. If we are going to realise our desires to live without regrets, it is fundamental that we find ways to make (leadership) decisions that create new trajectories on our lives.

leadership, motivation and being ‘nice’

“He’s the kind of bloke you’d give your right arm for.” A friend of mine was talking about a high profile figure with whom he had been recently working. One of the reasons the comment struck me was that I’d heard someone else, in a completely unrelated context, describe the same person in similar ways. I wondered what it was about this leader, now a federal politician, that caused others, very significant leaders in their own right, to respond to someone in this way. In this case:

1. He stood for something. His vision for society was compelling and contagious.

2. He had integrity. In the television interviews I had seen with him I saw a person whose personal disciplines and home life reflected the values he espoused for the community.

3. He was a ‘genuinely nice bloke’.

I want to perch for a minute on the last of these. What place does being a ‘nice bloke’ have in the cut throat rough and tumble of business? I regularly come across well managed businesses that are poorly led. By that I mean that the capacity of the leaders to generate outstanding effort from their teams is incidental rather than intentional and strategic. Huh?

For example, let’s think for a minute about performance appraisals. As positive reinforcement guru Aubrey Daniels says, ‘If the purpose is to motivate employees, it does not. If the purpose is to help people improve, it does not. If the purpose is to avoid legal problems with poor performers, it does not.” Yet performance appraisals remain a cornerstone of most business calenders because of a management rather than leadership mentality. The ‘management mentality’ typically expresses itself with a certain relational toughness that dismisses the vulnerability associated with being ‘nice’. But Daniels goes on, “You can be nice and ineffective, but you cannot get discretionary effort without being liked.”

Being ‘nice’, it turns out, has got a lot to do with employee motivation, particularly when we are talking about going the extra mile. This is not about a sugar-coated, superficial, manipulative relational style. As illustrated above, this is about the a moral quality that compels people to follow.

Perhaps the natural business resistance to being ‘nice’ is related to the commonly associated practice of failing to have difficult conversations. ‘Nice’ people are soft. They don’t, won’t or can’t address tough workplace issues. Good point. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. In fact I would argue that the mix of being ‘liked’ plus the resolve to address issues through embracing tough conversations as the need arises, (mixed with a vision worth sacrificing for – the elements above) is a potent leadership cocktail.

If you are naturally nice, the trick is to become better at embracing difficult conversations. If you resist being ‘nice’ at work, try being more personable and over time and observe the difference.

The capacity to motivate people, to help them tap into the depths of their natural talent, to solicit from them the kind of effort that puts your organisation ahead of the pack should be part of leadership 101. At the end of the day, as the cliche goes, the most valuable asset in any business is the people. Being ‘nice’ might have more going for it than most business people allow themselves to believe. It is certainly not the only thing, but without the kind of relational quality that invites people to willingly go the extra mile, your business is missing a vital ingredient.

(Aubrey Daniels quoted from the Feb 2008 edition of the Australian Financial Review’s Boss Magazine.)