To effectively lead a vitally important team, what capabilities count most? Different people might see that differently, but off the top of my head I’d say a top-flight leader possesses these traits:
- Insightful, innovative problem solver
- Sharply aware of the organization’s mission, strategy, culture, and business environment
- Fair and empathetic but firm leader
- Can-do, positive attitude and demeanor
- Clear communicator
- Demands accountability from team members as well as himself/herself
Top executives like CFOs might need a few other competencies, but most aspects of their formula for success could probably be slotted under one or more of the above items. It’s possible, I suppose, to successfully lead without one of the traits, but perhaps equally possible that such an omission will doom a leader to failure.
I got to thinking about this topic this morning, after reading a draft memo that now-banished White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci reportedly penned before being fired after a week on the job. The memo outlines his plans to upgrade the performance of the communications staff.
Scaramucci, incidentally, grew up in the town where I live, and a couple of my acquaintances know him. But his swift dismissal didn’t make me feel sorry for him. Even before he profanely excoriated two close colleagues — apparently not understanding that he was on the record with a writer from The New Yorker, a bizarre circumstance given his role as “communications director” — I perceived him as something of a smug, egocentric, insensitive sleazeball. For that reason, I didn’t get around to pondering whether he might actually be good at his new job.
However, for me, the draft memo cast him in a somewhat different light. Taking its words at their face value, and assuming they were actually written by Scaramucci and accurately reflected his beliefs and plans, the memo is an impressive document that reveals strong leadership ability.
Here are some of the passages that led me to that conclusion:
“We will eliminate the bad eggs and send a powerful message to the remaining staff that well-intentioned mistakes are acceptable, but misconduct is not.” (Fair and empathetic but firm leader.)
“We need to be a great team, not a collection of talented individuals with their own agendas.” (Sharply aware of the organization’s mission, strategy, culture, and business environment.)
“Comms [i.e., the communications team] needs to humanize POTUS and burnish his image. For example, POTUS is the best golfer to serve as President. Perhaps we embrace it with a national online lottery to play a round of golf with him…. POTUS has a funny and irreverent side which was shared with the electorate during the campaign.” (You may call that silly; I call it an example of innovative problem-solving.)
“Comms is a customer service operation…. POTUS is the Number One Customer…. [and] … The media is also an important Comms customer…. Relations with the media will improve if their complaints are welcomed and considered.” (Can-do, positive attitude.)
“Implement a series of professionalizing initiatives immediately. For example, no WH communication staffer goes home without returning all calls, emails, and texts.” (Demands accountability from team members.)
“Communications tactics and strategies should be evaluated based on measurable metrics.” (Problem solver.)
“Comms needs to better explain how POTUS’s actions are helping Americans. For example, deregulation is an abstract concept to most voters. We need to illustrate, with real life examples, how lifting burdensome regulations produces jobs.” (Aware of organization’s mission.)
While I do not support much of President Trump’s agenda, statements like these show someone who knows exactly what he’s trying to accomplish and how to do it. The statements are clearly communicated and show insight.
But, of course, talk is one thing and actions are another. Consider two other statements Scaramucci made that he betrayed with his actions:
“People may not like our answers — but they should always be treated professionally and respectfully (obviously, this starts with the new Director of Communications).”
“All Comms actions/decisions need to be evaluated through one and only one prism — does it help POTUS. To this end, I will lead by example and make sure that my overall conduct, tweets, internal and external comments meet this standard.”
Clearly, with his comments to The New Yorker, Scaramucci was not accountable to his own standards. And there are other qualities that help leaders succeed, which I didn’t immediately think of as I started to put my thoughts on paper. One of those is integrity. Another is thinking before speaking.
Good leaders are extraordinary because good leadership demands a collection of characteristics that few people possess in total. When evaluating leadership ability, one may be easily wowed by someone who displays most of them and is also, like Scaramucci, highly intelligent, charismatic, and resolute.
That’s why I think companies usually serve themselves best when they promote internal people to top leadership posts, rather than going outside the organization. Only after working with someone for an extended period of time can you be truly confident that you perceive all the personal subtleties that could influence the individual’s suitability for a position, one way or the other.
Photo: Urs Jaudas, Wikipedia, CC by 3.0