Three levels of leadership

This item was originally published by Forbes, where Raj Sethuraman is a member of the Forbes Technology Council.

In everything from pop culture to politics and biographies to basketball, being a leader is applauded -- and rightfully so. While being a leader means different things in different contexts, in the business world -- and especially in the technology industry -- it means far more than being able to give a motivational speech.

In any organization, business outcomes don’t just happen. Instead, they are the result of a flowchart of sorts: Organizational strategy drives value, which then drives culture. Culture drives actions, and actions drive business outcomes. A leader isn’t just someone who understands this entire flowchart; they're someone who creates an environment where every individual is empowered to work toward business outcomes. Thus, true leadership takes place at multiple levels simultaneously.

I find it particularly useful to think of leadership at three levels: the organizational level, the team level and the individual level. All three levels are equally important and must work together.

Organizational Leadership

One place where leadership is loudly praised is in the world of sports, whether that means a coach is applauded for their vision or a player is applauded for leading by example. But there’s a glaring difference between the type of leadership that defines sports and that which is applicable to business. In sports, the overarching goal is obvious and fixed. The goal is to win -- first the game at hand and then a championship. But for every company, the “game” is different. Success means different things depending not just on the industry, but perhaps on other factors, such as the state of the economy, your competitive outlook or even the time of year.

As such, business leadership must start at the highest level: understanding the organizational mission and what success looks like based on the company’s industry landscape, competitors, unique value proposition and so on. These parameters of success should be reflected in everything you do -- or, to reference the earlier flowchart, should clearly trickle down to culture and actions. If your industry moves fast, for example, your organization needs to do the same.

Continuous innovation is crucial to companies in all industries and should be baked into the organization, not just tasked to one or two people. Good leaders bring in a sense of urgency and create a work culture that shuns complacency. Great leaders, though, know exactly which areas require the most innovation -- and to what end. This is organizational leadership, and it sets the tone for every team in the company.

Team Leadership

With these organizational goals in mind, let’s consider how to build and lead a specific team. The right skills and team structure are crucial to driving these business outcomes. A good leader can hire and train the right mix of employees for a team to function smoothly. When hiring, I focus on how a person as a whole will be a good fit for the company and how their skills will be a good fit for the specific team. Those skills range from technological competencies to soft skills like the ability to collaborate.

While doing this, it’s important to ensure that your team’s objectives match those of your company’s -- or both will fail. A good way to do this is to encourage team members to get involved in and contribute to other aspects of corporate decision making that are not normally under their purview. For example, an engineering leader can think about and present ideas for improving customer care. It’s also good for team leaders from different groups to routinely speak to one another so they can go outside their own boxes and learn about what other teams in the company are doing.

Once the tough hiring decisions are made, a great team leader knows how to motivate employees in a way that reflects the personalities and goals of particular team members and the broader company culture and its business requirements. Performance goals must be both team-specific and mapped to the organization at large.

This may require partnering with other teams to achieve objectives. It may also mean measuring what team members have accomplished, from their ability to communicate to the extent to which they live the organization’s values. It does no good to work for 10 hours if you don’t produce any outcomes. To be blunt, the best leaders don’t let detractors or underachievers stay on the team forever. Conversely, they evaluate and provide opportunities for high performers, so the team and company alike can continue to thrive.

Individual Leadership

Of course, your team is more likely to respond if you do possess some individual leadership traits, including the prerequisite amount of charisma and the ability to deliver motivational speeches. To me, though, individual leadership is mostly about authenticity -- the ability to lead by example while possessing both self-awareness and self-confidence.

To that end, leaders should constantly be evaluating themselves -- not just their employees -- and should try to learn from everyone they encounter. More specifically, make sure you consider how those teachings can be applied across all three dimensions outlined here. Also, I recommend selecting a mentor outside your team, as it offers a novel perspective. I always ask leaders on my team to seek the perspectives of other leaders.

The Bottom Line

Any organization -- tech-focused or otherwise -- is only as great as its people. But who gets hired and how they work is determined by those who fill leadership positions within the company -- and should be decided by the overarching position and strategy of the organization.

Truly great leaders consider everything from big-picture strategy to individual empowerment and understand how these broad buckets interact and drive each other. Leadership, more or less, operates on three levels that are all equally important to driving business outcomes. Great leaders are able to juggle and master all three.

About The Author

Raj Sethuraman

Raj Sethuraman is focused on delivering enterprise platforms that leverage technology, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics and more, to improve productivity and business growth for global legal and claims teams. As CTO, Raj oversees all product engineering and software development activities of the 225+ global technology team at Wolters Kluwer's ELM Solutions.

Raj has substantial leadership experience in managing software development teams with global companies, including Intuit Inc., United Health Care Group, Brillo Inc., and Agilent Technologies. Raj is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He earned his MBA from the University of Southern California, a Master of Science from the SJCE School of Engineering in Mysore, India, and a Bachelor of Science in Electronics and Instrumentation from Annamalai University in Chidambaram, India.