When talking about Leadership, it is a subject that encompasses a great deal of theory and most people consider it to be broad. It is something that everyone seems to have differing opinions about and no one can seem to agree on one set of rules on how to lead. To try and get a better grasp on the ideas of Leadership I reached out to Ken Millar who is the Managing Director at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.
He has spent 20 years in this position and began his career as a Managing Director at GE Capital. His work requires him to manage several different teams that focus on financial investments that SunTrust has put into other businesses. It is a job that requires precision and cohesion between employees and can be stressful at times. But because this requires him to be in charge of many different people at any given time, he is the perfect candidate to talk to about what Leadership is.
At the beginning of the interview, it seemed advantageous to start with a more broad scope and ask him some generalities. Asking what he thought about leadership he responded with the thought that, “Leadership is the ability to develop a clear vision and have a goal set in mind and find ways to implement it, apply it to the right situations at the right times”. It became clear that he approached leadership from a somewhat tactical approach. The idea of being prepared and always ready for what may come around the corner was imperative to him.
This thought process lined up with the directive leader approach of the path-goal theory that was discussed in the textbook, Leadership: Theory and Practice, by Peter Northouse. The theory in the text states, “A directive leader sets clear standards of performance and makes the rules and regulations clear to followers.” (Northouse, 2018, pg. 120). Within the path-goal theory, there are 4 different leader types but directive leadership is closest to what Ken prescribes to. As the interview continued this fact was only strengthened. When asked what leadership traits Ken looked up to he shared that he liked, “The ones that did the work and understand what the requirements really are and have the training to do it and that can express how it can be accomplished. The ones that can inspire people to work towards a common goal.”
Clearly Ken had developed a leadership style that was more hands-off and goal-oriented. When pushed about his hands-off style he responded that this way of leading really depended on the followers or employees that you have in your corner. As he puts it, “It depends on the type of team you are trying to have. If it’s self-sufficient obviously you want to give them the goals and parameters and let them roll with it if they are qualified. If it’s a team that’s not qualified and you have to train up or educate them, you have to take those steps before you implement the goal.” It is important to know the specialties and traits of those working with you. In a team environment, it can all fall apart pretty quickly if one person cannot hold up their end of the work.
There are many different ways that teamwork can become inefficient and people can fall out of their groove finding themselves behind on their goal. As the Team Leadership chapter discusses in Northouse’s textbook, a question that leaders have to ask frequently while working on team projects is, “Should I intervene to meet task or relational needs?” (Northouse, 2018, pg. 382). Ken thought about this question and how certain needs may come about in group work and in the followers under him. After a couple of seconds he mentioned, “You can always learn from them, some of the feedback that is necessary to know if you need to modify the goal, you get this information from people who know what’s going on.” This was an important lesson to hear. Ken thought about the question and instead of instantly replying that he would intervene one way or another, he thought about where he was gathering the information to make this decision.
He puts his trust in the people doing the work under him and believes that they can provide a basis for any decision that needs to be made relating to their joint goal. This also showed another side of Ken’s leadership style that hadn’t surfaced. He began to show knowledge and practice of adaptive leadership which Northouse has a whole chapter dedicated to in his textbook. One of the key traits of Adaptive leadership when interacting with followers is a leader’s ability of “expressing belief in their ability to solve their own problems” showing the followers that they can be trusted to do their own work (Northouse, 2018, p.269). Ken throughout the interview discussed his belief in others and showed that it is important to build teams around people that are qualified to do the work they are being assigned. Wondering where this perspective on leadership stemmed from and what might be the catalyst for why he led the way he did, the conversation turned to who Ken believed to be a great leader.
The person he referenced was not a famous historical figure or some champion of the people, but rather a businessman that he held in high regard. When asked the question, he responded, “Jack Welch was, he was CEO of General Electric when it was growing. He set high goals, and gave people the resources to achieve them, he always stretched the goals.” During Ken’s tenure at GE Capital, it became apparent that the CEO of the whole General Electric corporation had left an imprint. Ken agreed that he mimicked some of the leadership styles he saw in Jack Welch and that he had held him in high regard when he was starting out at the company. Ken’s leadership style is unique to him but it mimics many of the various theories discussed in Northouse’s text. No single leadership style is above another but Ken feels that having the ability to form a knowledgeable team is a good place to start.
Leadership is something that is debated heavily between those who have studied the topic and can be somewhat convoluted. Trying to put a finger on which leadership tactic is better is a practice in futility and could be considered a fool’s errand for the layman of the subject. However, to become successful when trying to complete a task that involves others, it is important to hone the skills and traits that make a good leader. So what do you do?
Ken’s way relies heavily on followers being skilled already, but he also mentions something else that holds merit, “Constant communication, understanding what the follower’s role is and teaching them or letting them do it if they are qualified, making sure they understand what the goals are and how to accomplish them.” At the end of the day, communication is the backbone of leadership and without it, any project is doomed to fail. If someone wants to lead, they have to communicate that fact clearly and why they believe they are fit for the job. If they can’t do that, then they aren’t fit to be a leader in the first place.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.