In Conversation with…
Obi is a Consulting Director at NKD and author of ‘The Magic of Monday’. He has spent more than a decade enabling organisations across the globe, including Shell, Deutsche Post DHL, Tesco, and Transport for London, to improve performance by redefining and shaping how leaders engage and inspire their people.
‘ The bottom line is that you’re more effective as a leader when you learn to lead yourself first’
NKD: Let’s begin with something really important, what is leadership and what is its purpose?
Obi Abuchi: There are lots of definitions of leadership. However you define it, the intent can be boiled down to harnessing the energy of people to achieve a certain goal, which means it is ultimately about influence. Because leadership is about influence, you can have poor leaders who influence people to do terrible things – join a gang, waste a company’s resources, or even lead a country astray. But, you also have great leaders who harness that collective energy and influence people for the common good – to achieve something amazing for an organisation, for a community, for a country.
NKD: What are the leadership traits or characteristics that you see as the most powerful?
OA: To answer that, I immediately think of some of the men and women who have inspired me over the years. The first person that comes to mind is Nelson Mandela. Not to say that you’ve got to go to prison for 27 years in order to be a great leader, but that certainly made a difference to his character. I recently watched the film adaptation of his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and there were several scenes that highlighted the strength of his character and its impact on his leadership. When he came out of prison there was a lot of excitement, as well as an incredible uproar; understandably so. People were feeling the pain of apartheid and had a strong sense of being belittled and made to feel worthless. Suddenly, with his release, a new era was upon them; they had their honoured leader back and all they wanted to do was fight. Fight against the establishment. And they hoped Mandela would lead that fight. In a way, he did lead that fight but not as they expected. As the tension and violence began escalating, he appeared on TV and with absolute conviction he pretty much said, “Guys, we aren’t going to go for violence here. We’re going to do this peacefully. I am your leader. I need you to listen to me.”
In that moment, what I saw was a guy who’s willing to stand up for what he believed in and knew how to harness that collective energy for the common good. He’d gone through an extremely difficult period that had forged his character. You could now see in him a special blend of humility, courage and strength to say, “Listen, I really do want to take you to a better place. If anyone should be complaining, if anyone should be fighting, if anyone should be hurting, it should be me, but I’m not. I’ve chosen a different path now and I expect you to follow me.” For that to have impact you need to be humble and courageous enough to have conversations with people around whilst not trying to dominate them.
So, humility, conviction, courage and strength of character are some of the most powerful traits I’ve seen in the best leaders. They also connect, at a heart level, with the people that they’re trying to influence. They truly see them, not as machines and not as things to be used, but as people. Finally, there’s clarity about where they’re going and where they think people need to go and they’re not afraid to push and encourage people to do more.
NKD: So, there’s an articulation of a very clear journey or vision?
OA: Yeah, journey, vision, and also expectation – though not necessarily painting a rosy picture that it’s all going to be straightforward, because it isn’t. It’s more important to communicate and help people understand and believe that they are capable of doing more and achieving more than they think. That isn’t easy and it can be quite vulnerable.
NKD: Leadership and vulnerability? Now, that’s interesting. How do they go together?
OA: A bit cliché, I know, but the leader’s the one who’s willing to put their head above the parapet – to take risks, stand up, stand out – and that makes you vulnerable. Vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to failure, vulnerable to getting it wrong. Being a leader makes you vulnerable and that shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. To be effective, your best bet is to embrace your vulnerability. It helps people connect with you, see you as authentic and respect you. For most people, working with a vulnerable and authentic leader is quite validating of your own humanity. When you’re around leaders, it’s so easy to think, “I’ve made so many mistakes.” “I’m not as great as the leader.” “She’s amazing.” “He’s so good at X.” So, when you’re vulnerable as a leader about your challenges or weaknesses or failures, that can be really powerful. It can give people a lot of hope and belief that they could in fact do more, be more, achieve more, because they see the leader doing whatever they’re doing, not because they’re perfect but because they believe in it, because they’ve got passion and drive, because they want to make a difference. That creates even more support for the leader and the overall vision.
NKD: When you think about leadership and these various traits, are these things that you try to apply to your own style of leadership? Are these things that make you think, “I’m going to role model those behaviours that I appreciate?”
OA: Yes. Although I’ve still got so much to learn, I’m very conscious of walking my talk as a leader. I look at all of those traits I admire in others and want to develop them in myself. However, a shift that I’ve made in recent years is realising that, in order for me to be effective as a leader, I need to have a strong foundation of personal leadership. You might have come across the saying by Leadership Expert, John Maxwell, “When we are foolish, we want to conquer the world. When we are wise, we want to conquer ourselves”. The bottom line is that you’re more effective as a leader when you learn to lead yourself first. For example, that means having a clear vision for your own life before creating one for other people or for an organisation. It also means overcoming your own limiting beliefs and habits and doing more than you thought possible before you ask others to do the impossible.
NKD: There are layers of leaders within an organisation. You’ve got your people-leaders – your supervisors or frontline managers, so to speak, and they obviously have a huge effect on people achieving more than they thought they could, but is it more difficult to do, as someone who is at the top of an organisation?
OA: Most senior leaders don’t have a lot of day-to-day contact with frontline employees, but that’s where, I think, your communication and your role-modelling becomes absolutely critical. As you progress in an organisation, you become less accessible. Because you’re less accessible to the people and because of your role, they put more weight on what you say or think. Yes, supervisors or frontline managers are closer to the ground and they influence the environment day-to-day, but a two or three-minute conversation with a senior leader sets the tone, positively or negatively, impacts the environment, says what’s important. So, you’ve got to be really aware of your communication and its impact, and constantly ask yourself, “What is it that I can do, that no-one else can do?” and keep that as your focus.
NKD: So, what can you do as a senior leader than no one else can?
OA: Well, you, as the leader, can and should focus on reminding people WHY– why are we doing all of this? And help people connect to the bigger picture, to the purpose of the organisation. You also need to help people know why they are important. You might have a monthly newsletter that goes out to your people, reinforcing the vision or what’s important, but you also need to be able share some of your own stories. Obama did this really well – telling stories. During his initial presidential campaign or when he was promoting his healthcare bill, he talked about his mum and so made it personal. As a leader, it’s important to give people an insight into who you are as a person and what matters to your heart.
There’s always a degree of mistrust with leaders, the further away you are from the frontline. So the more you can communicate your heart, what’s important to you, as well as why we need to be doing what we’re doing, the more likely you are to gain more of that trust and see higher engagement across your organisation.
The other thing you can do that no one else can is take care of yourself – that’s critical. There’s a balance between sacrificing yourself for the cause and doing it in a way that’s sustainable enough that you’re around for the long haul. That’s a big challenge if you’re a leader, because you’ve got a lot of responsibility and everyone’s coming to you, bringing their proverbial monkeys for you to carry, but you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, for the benefit of your people, your family, and your customers as well. That’s essential to effective leadership and that’s personal leadership in action.
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