This article serves to help you grow in your understanding of what leadership in business is and to be motivated to keep giving your best as a leader. As a business leader or owner, you will agree that leadership is like beauty: you know when you see it but it could be lacking in description. How would you complete the sentence: “Leadership is …”? 

John Maxwell, a well-known leadership expert, said: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” What do you make of this description? How do you relate to complaining, hoping for the better, or adjusting the sails?

Leaders are human… and our first reaction in a situation is often emotional. This is not wrong. The spectrum of emotions covers a variety of emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, confusion, or joy, all with a reason and could result in us settling for being named pessimist or optimist. It helps leaders to know that people experience circumstances differently and that they could have different emotions to different situations. However, leaders guide themselves and others through a situation by acknowledging the emotions and by understanding them.

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, author of the book: Cleaning up your Mental Mess (2021), understanding emotions and talking about them help people to learn and to grow. Dr Leaf recommends that we “put ourselves through a mind-management process that changes toxic thoughts and their related behaviours into positive thinking and habits”. 

Rational thought patterns can follow the initial emotional response to circumstances. Experience from a similar situation and knowledge, especially through collaboration, can help leaders to move forward in situations. People come out stronger as they work through situations together to seek the best way forward. Leaders act wisely when they apply knowledge and insight and when they guide their team members to make good decisions through collaboration and responsible conduct.

Will situations change? They usually do but effective leaders are often those people who are keen to learn from what the situation poses, show tenacity for positive development, and seek good outcomes from the situation. Business theory in the 1980’s was adamant that business leaders should accept that they cannot change the format of their macro and market environments but reality proved them wrong in the 21st century. Leaders can shape their environments, even on a global scale. What is still true throughout all the ages, is that where change seems impossible, attitude adjustment and innovation often emerge. When combined with wisdom, societies benefit. How can this happen?

All humans can be creative. Leaders nurture and develop creativity in themselves and in others and circumstances often are the catalyst for it. As Henry Ford was working on the Model T motorcar in the late 1890’s, cities around the world were struggling with numerous sanitation problems related to horse manure and carcasses left in city streets. His fascination with machines and how they work, simultaneously solved the manure problem in the streets! Many of the sanitation policies of those times are still in place today but the transport industry was changed for ever. 

An important key to being a leader is thus to not let circumstances get you under but to rise to the occasion by keeping your focus on what is good and contributing to a better outcome. This is part of the story of Henry Ford’s life but also of other inventors and innovators, making them leaders in their fields of expertise. This process can be part of your story as a business leader.

Modern day thinking about leadership acknowledges various approaches to defining the concept and my articles throughout the rest of the year will focus on growing in understanding the concept of leadership development. My key questions for you to ponder is:

  • How can you grow from being pessimistic or optimistic about your current situation to adjusting the sails as a leader?, and
  • “Where should your focus be?

To conclude, we learn that leaders are human and operate in situations that at times could be really challenging. This means that leaders need to acknowledge their own emotions and the emotions of their team members. Working through emotions should be followed by seeking knowledge and insight, and then progressing with wisdom through sound decision making. Leaders are not stuck in situations but are those people that desire positive change and make it happen by adjusting the sails!

If you are interested in an individual consultation session or a team workshop on this topic, contact Dr. Santie von Below at +27 (0)82 613 0719 or send an email to Dr Santie von Below is a strategic leadership business consultant with industry experience and a strong academic background. She is married and a mother of five adult children. She serves as an author, lecturer, and a thought leader for the SA Council of Businesswomen in South Africa since 2021.

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