This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada, which closed in 2021.
The Blog

Here's What Great Business Leaders Have In Common

Post the industrial revolution, the complexity of larger organizations brought about a plethora of skills that business person needed to have -- finance, people leadership, sales, marketing, relationship management, just to name a few. The concept of business leadership evolved.

The definition of a business person is anyone who's job is it is to make money. Seems like accurately covers the guy who opened up a corner store to the woman whose leading a multi-national firm. Prior to the industrial revolution, people made money by producing whatever they were skilled at. They were business people.

Post the industrial revolution, the complexity of larger organizations brought about a plethora of skills that business person needed to have -- finance, people leadership, sales, marketing, relationship management, just to name a few. The concept of business leadership evolved.

So, what is that you need to be a better business leader?

1. Do you need to be smart?

When MBAs started flooding the market starting in the early 1970s, expectations around what graduates expected their entry and career trajectory in business to look like has been painful for hiring managers and HR professionals alike. Executives with MBAs became a larger proportion of the seats at boardroom tables and alumni carried powerful voices in advocating the value of business degrees.

In fact, many help drive the internship and talent acquisition strategies at their respective firms. The blueprint to business success never seemed clearer. Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors, famously said that the key to restarting in the U.S. economy post the recession was to fire all the executives with MBAs and let the product engineers run the business.

With 500+ case studies under their belt, MBA graduates seem best trained to take on the complexities of today's business world. The challenge lies in whether you can truly reflect the accountability and real life stresses, associated with being faced with making the right decisions.

2. Do you need have good judgment?

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that people can actually make the right decisions on limited information -- thin-slicing. He contends that intuition matters.

In fact, relying on too much analysis or even referencing past frameworks could result in dangerous biases. Real life business experience provides valuable context and situational nuances that allow one to develop intuitive judgement skills.

The cause of the 2008 depression is well-debated and documented in books and movies. Homeowners and investors made "rational" decisions given their optimistic beliefs about the market. Then a series of other seemingly disconnected "good" decisions were made. Data and alghorithms didn't help business people predict the domino effect of the subprime mortgage crisis.

It was reported by the media at the time that Jaimie Dimon made a call to the head of securitized products while he was on vacation, with an instinct to pull back J.P. Morgan's positions while their competitors were ramping up. A judgement call that helped dodge that bullet.

3. Do you need to have good instincts?

Mark Zuckerberg gave college drop-outs hope that success could be in their reach as well. This spurred the belief that an idea and not a degree could create value. Silicon Valley is filled with self-appointed business people, with less experience and more capital than any other time.

Traditional players started shaking in their boots at the thought at some young kid with a lot of time and little money could disrupt the industry that they play in. Even if these models didn't scale or they eventually got bought by an established player, they presented an unwelcome distraction.

"Learn to code!" became the mantra. Tenured executives began to talk about millennials or digital natives as unique breed of humans, that offered much more than they ever did to the generation before. Technology didn't create great start ups like Uber, AirBnB or Spotify, it was the instinct to identify a problem that needed a solution.

Most of the time, how they would make money isn't on their radar or isn't at the core of the solution. Investing $1 million in someone with great business instincts could yield a better upside than handing it to a consulting firm. Not sure if that's true, but the former would be more interested to watch, that's for sure.

4. Do you need to be hard-working?

If you've never seen a Gary Vaynerchuk USC Entrepreneur Talk on YouTube, Google it now. It's just over 45 minutes and despite the profanity, it's so amusing, you'll want to watch it over and over again.

Vaynerchuk didn't get into an Ivy League business school like Zuckerberg, or had the privilege of dropping out of one. He opens his talk by saying that he doesn't believe that you can teach entrepreneurship. As a D and F student, he tells the class, "You're too soft to beat me," and you believe it.

There is something to be said about starting from the bottom and learning the business. Few CEOs are left that talk about starting in warehouse or as a front-line sales person. It wasn't tenure that made them successful, it was their passion for the business and their hunger to learn everything about it. Some organizations provide a hierarchy of roles that foster learning and growth. If you work hard, you shine.

Depending on where your organization is in its business cycle or strategic priorities, your area of accountability may carry more organizational weight or power than others. Sometimes being hardworking doesn't solve for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

5. Do you need to be liked?

Quite simply, you can't be a leader unless someone follows. Certainly organizational structures put the necessary stratification in place to ensure that there is the appropriate breadth and scope of management accountability. Usually the broader your area of accountability, the larger number of individuals you are responsible for.

You can put a vision, plan, objectives, plans and KPIs in place. You can cascade individual performance goals that are tightly aligned to what you hope to achieve and monitor performance regularly so make sure people deliver.

Leaders often feel that the idea of creating a "following" means that they need to be liked. Who wouldn't want to be liked, after all? Obviously, its almost impossible to lead a people who dislike you.

That said, some leaders allow the desire to be popular to affect how they manage their business. They may avoid certain decisions or show a bias to a direction for fear of creating a negative perception of their leadership amongst their team. "If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing," said Margaret Thatcher.

Leaders don't need to be liked but they do need to be respected. That comes from being fair and balanced when making tough choices and communicating in a way that people get it. No situation is perfect and if you feel you need to sugarcoat or protect your staff, you are not leading adults.

People do want to see humility in a leader. An authentic person that may be flawed but is self-aware. Someone that they can trust. There is no secret sauce to building a business leader. Organizations can invest in leadership programs but unless someone invests in themselves, they cannot develop.

Visibility and experience is critical to growth. The reason you come in every day establishes the stage from which people see you. The bottom line is that you need to have the right motivation to want to lead.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


8 Emails You Never Want to See from Your Boss
Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact