There's No Substitute For Strategic Leadership

Association of Strategic Marketing
October 8, 2012 — 1,391 views  
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When the 2012 holiday season over, it won’t be that easy to put a positive spin on the future of the retail industry.

Even experienced prognosticators have no idea where the global retail industry is heading. What we see in the rear view mirror is clear – or nearly so. On the other hand, navigating the dark and bumpy road to recovery is like driving with only one headlight.

Make no mistake, the 2008-2012 economic debacle was no ordinary affair. It’s likely that the “Great Economic Freak-Out” (The American name for it) has set a standard for future recessions. A depressing distinction.

Seasoned retailers have survived – even learned from -- the slumps of 1973, 1980, 1990, 2001, (me included). By now they should have designed their own simple ‘circle-the-wagons’ strategy.  

But, when every retailer is trying to see the future and, at the same time, manage inventory, merchandise, dwindling cash flow, acquisition strategies or whatever, it is easy to loose sight of that one key ingredient to success – or at least for survival – effective leadership. (As the saying goes, it’s hard to spot the alligator when you’re up to your ‘neck’ in water -- or something to that affect).

There is no substitute for strong and determined leadership – plentiful in good times; harder to find after this Great Freakout.

Leaders make things happen. They pull their team off the floor after a Grinch-like season. They bring confidence and trust. Through action and words, they inspire. They spot problems and quickly design solutions. Leaders anticipate opportunities and create exploitation strategies. Obviously, leaders have a dual role, in essence to use their heads (manager) and hearts (leader).

Simply, it is the time for retailers -- or any executive, for that matter -- to hone their leadership skills. The health and well-being of their organizations lies in the balance. (To paraphrase Mark Twain: Nothing so needs reforming as bad leadership habits.)


So, here are eight leadership ‘”Must-Have’s” – kind of a Leadership Wish List. Since this bibliography is diverse, (US Marine Corps Leadership Principles, successful retail executives, personal experiences, Harvard University studies, various texts, educators, etc.), you may not agree with all on the list. You may even scratch your head on some, but they should – at a minimum -- make you think.  

  • Listen. One of the major differences between the average leader and the super-successful one is that ‘supers’ (as I call them) have the self discipline to listen. For them there’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy and showing respect. The listening switch is always on. It has become a disappearing art.

Make your next interpersonal encounter an exercise of treating the other person like a million bucks. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish their sentences. Don’t let your eyes wander. Don’t use the words “no,” “but” and “however.” Just listen. Chances are the person might even say to himself, “What a great guy!”

  • Passion. Leaders should have an abundance of passion and enthusiasm for what they do. Either you have passion in your leadership message or you don’t. If it’s missing -- like many aspiring leaders – redesign your organization’s mission.

Passion – enthusiasm – is infectious and can inspire entire organizations.

  • Emotion. If you haven’t read Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking, best selling book Emotional Intelligence, (Bantam, 1994), you should – everyone should. Goleman’s hypothesis is simple: there is constant conflict between intelligence and emotion. All too often, Goleman suggests, emotion hijacks intelligence: that’s why people of high IQ flounder and those of modest IQ do surprisingly well.

Useless and irrelevant emotional information infiltrates important and difficult decisions making them worthless -- or worse -- harmful.

  • Stories. Inspiring leaders tell memorable stores and appreciate their power to help them connect with their audience. A few months ago I met a house painter. He used to have his wife wear an air mask when she met him for lunch. The painter told me he now uses a special paint that is not harmful if inhaled. Now, his wife doesn’t have to wear a mask.

No amount of data can replace that story. And guess what I think about when I buy paint at the hardware store?

  • Character and Honesty. Without complete honesty and ethics, (character), the up-and-coming leader will face significant challenges – if not failure. Hardly anyone will follow unethical people; few will trust a dishonest executive. (To paraphrase Mark Twain again: Many large things have been lost by a small lie.)

Truth, honesty, fairness, individual rights and character are the successful leaders’ mantra. See if your leadership model covers these points. If it doesn’t, start re-evaluating your leadership style.

  • Self Improvement. With the warp-speed changes in technology, global competition product development and the economy, (ouch), effective leaders remain current in all of these. Part of leadership is studying newspapers and industry journals, taking adult education classes and attending trade seminars.

How painful would it be if your organization had a setback – or worse, lost an opportunity -- because a well-publicized trend passed you by?

  • CommunicationThe importance of leadership communication cannot – and is not – over-emphasized. The most successful Presidents of the US, for example, are generally rated on their ability to communicate with their constituencies. (Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein describes the “ability to rally colleagues and structure their activities effectively” as a key ingredient to their leadership success).

So, taking a page from Greenstein, leadership communication, by email, letter, phone, fax, speech, meeting (the list is endless), is the first – and arguably most important -- tool in the leaders wide arsenal for success.  If your communication mix is not expansive, you should develop it.

  • Backbone. When the economy is down, the need for leadership courage goes up. The lifeblood of your organization -- Innovation, sales, strategies, and hundreds of other disciplines -- depends on it. On balance, leaders who behave courageously attain their goals quicker and more efficiently.

Check your leadership backbone. 1) Are you willing to take initiative and try something new? 2) Are you willing to let your subordinates try something untested on their own? 3) Are you willing to speak up and go against the grain?

Association of Strategic Marketing