By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO
There’s plenty of talk about leadership these days. Whenever you tune into a subject, you seem to attract more of it. Similar to when you purchase a yellow car, you start seeing more yellow cars on the road. The same has happened with leadership. As I started talking more openly about the importance of leadership, I have met people who feel the same way or have thoughts about it. To me leadership skills are a game changer when it comes to procurement transformation. I strongly believe that acquiring leadership skills is a critical element in achieving the goal of elevating the procurement profession. I want to share some leadership truths that I have learned along the way and continue to learn as I transition to a new phase in my career.
Effective leadership skills are transferable.
Regardless of the environment in which you acquired and practiced leadership skills, they are based on principles as old as time. These principles, when applied in any environment, country or culture, whether in a small organization of volunteers or in a multi-national company, work just the same.
People can learn to become effective leaders if they consistently and intentionally practice leadership principles. These principles include things like connecting with people, showing integrity and a strong character, continued learning and growing, influencing others, helping those around you to develop and succeed, and providing guidance through good and bad times.
To become a better leader, you should first learn to lead yourself well and start right where you are. Leadership development is a journey and not a destination; therefore, continuous growth is essential. In his book “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, Dr. John C. Maxwell lays out 21 principles of leadership. He states that the more a person knows and practices these principles, the higher their leadership skills will be.
Leadership is about service to others.
We have learned a thing or two about leadership from great philosophers. Aristotle said that the “ethical role of the leader” is to create the conditions that would help followers achieve their potential. Aristotle believed that in order to be a good leader, it was necessary to be a follower. He said that even after becoming a leader, we still need to follow the concerns and progress of those we serve. Plato thought that leadership should be the role of a philosopher because the greatest self-benefit to philosophers was to live virtuously. That being the case, philosophers would then act out of morality and not out of self-benefit, resulting in benefit to the people they serve.
These timeless lessons taught us that good leaders put people first. That is the heart of leadership. Leadership is not about position or title. In fact, you can be a leader without an official title. Empowering others and helping people reach their potential is the what leadership is about. Zig Ziglar said “If you help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” This statement does not refer to a trade. Instead, it is about helping others succeed simply because it is the right thing to do. That practice is often referred to as “servant leadership”.
An effective leader has willing followers.
A position or title serves only as leverage in a leadership situation. The leader must make an effort to connect with people on an individual basis in order to gain their trust. Without it, people will only follow because they have to. People need to know that the leader cares about them and their success. It is up to the leader to inspire the trust of others by modeling good character and high competence. Once this threshold is crossed, the leader has moved to a level of leadership where people follow because they want to. It is then that the leader can tap into people’s “discretionary good will”. This “discretionary good will” is the potential of individuals beyond what’s expected in the job description.
Perhaps one of the toughest leadership situations is leading volunteers. Unlike a job on which an individual depends to earn an income and make a living, a volunteer situation does not always offer the leader the leverage of holding people accountable for a certain level of performance. There are little to no consequences to the individual for failure to perform or even show up. The leader must appeal to the volunteers’ uncommitted discretionary good will all the time. It is the leader’s responsibility to connect with each person in order to keep them engaged and interested in giving their time and talents.
The leader sets the tone for the organizational culture.
If the culture is inviting and people feel included, it reflects the values that the leader instills in the organization. If the environment is toxic, it is also a reflection of the leader and the behavior that he/she models and encourages. It is the leader that sets the tone for the culture. People do what people see and they take their cue from the leader.
The leader has the ability to inspire people to go above and beyond the scope of their task or defined responsibility. Getting to that level of leadership requires effort from the leader. He/she needs to create the right environment. People want to belong and be part of something bigger than themselves. The need to belong is one of the basic psychological needs of every individual according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If the environment is such that people feel excluded or not appreciated, it may result in their disengagement. We are complex creatures!
Leadership happens at all levels of the organization.
Good leaders in the ranks make good leaders at the top. For the organization to succeed, it must develop leaders at all levels. Good leaders at lower levels are more likely to become great leaders in positions of authority. As people in positions of less responsibility acquire leadership skills and practice being a leader, they prepare for opportunities of greater responsibility. In other words, they are ready when the opportunity arises.
Since modeling is one of the ways through which growth happens, for an organization to develop a good bench of leaders, it should first have a good leader at the top. The leader(s) at the top should encourage, empower, and nurture leaders at the next level. And the leaders in this next level down should encourage, empower, and nurture the leaders at the following level down in the organization, and so on. If within that chain, there is a faulty link, it will be difficult to develop leaders at the lowest level of responsibility in the organization.
In procurement, we have not done a very good job of developing a strong bench of leaders. It took the massive exodus of baby boomers to realize that there isn’t for the most part, a deep bench of strong leaders. If we as a profession paid more attention to leadership skills development, there wouldn’t be as much concern about the “Silver Tsunami”.
Leadership is an integral part of what we do. Procurement professionals lead teams providing expertise and guidance in the procurement process. Yet, leadership has not been a strong part of the skills required for certification. The focus in the past decade or two has been on technical skills and data. It was a necessary focus to establish a stronger foundation for the profession. Unfortunately, as we strengthened our technical skills, we may have missed one key component for elevating the profession to have that seat at the table – leadership. Going forward, as that becomes rectified through educational programs, I hope that communication skills and the ability to connect become part of the educational offerings as well.
Developing leaders at every level of the organization also adds to procurement’s collective influence within and outside the entity. This aligns with the goal of having a seat the table across all organizations. As mentioned previously, for a leader to be successful, people must follow willingly. This is true for procurement professionals. We want our end users to follow willingly and not struggle with compliance every step of the way. This is where the technical skills intersect with leadership skills. It is up to the leader, in this case the procurement professional, to do the things that are necessary to earn that respect and be worthy of the trust of those for whom they are responsible. The posture of procurement in an organization is dependent on modeling character, integrity, and competence, which can result on the necessary trust and respect to position procurement at the highest level in the entity.
In summary, leadership is about service to others. It is not defined by a position or title. The leader must possess the character to inspire trust and the competence to earn the respect of those led. Trust is a foundational requirement for the leader. Without the trust of the team, the leader does not have influence at his/her disposal to actually lead others. If you want to develop your leadership skills, start where you are right now. Leadership starts with you. The behavior that you model sets the tone for the culture and determines how far you and your team can get. Lead yourself well and make growth your objective.