GROWING UP, the issue of whether leaders were born or made was such a raging topic that it proved too difficult to diffuse. I remember hearing a rather funny but poignant statement from a well-known academic, who said the person who settles that debate must be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
I grew up the first amongst four girls. It was a relentless and never-ending picture of love, collaboration and resilience. I remember vividly as if it were yesterday, my father telling me to lead by example and that my younger sisters were looking up to me. He was such a man of encouragement. I didn’t realise until much later that it was the embryonic phase of my leadership development.
I keep getting asked countless times to describe my appreciation of leadership and how my own experiences have taught me about the concept and its ramifications. In fact, I recently joined a virtual session organised by the UK-Ghana Chamber of Commerce (UKGCC) on International Women’s Day (IWD) to share my thoughts and reflections as a Senior Executive in one of Ghana’s leading financial institutions. It was a great session and one that made me reflect more deeply about how my own journey has redefined leadership for me.
Attempting a definition
Leadership has come to mean so many things to so many people. At what stage in life can one confidently lay claim to having led successfully and what tangibles can one exhibit to reflect that? The way I see it, and no matter the diversity of attributions given to it, leadership is about people. When you are able to grasp that, you put yourself on a path to effective leadership and playing a significant role in winning and influencing people.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” said Shakespeare. Leadership is not a rosy journey or position to be in. However, when you understand that it is all about how to handle people and not just about being smart, everything falls in place. A successful leader demonstrates a lot of emotional intelligence, discernment, and engagement. You need to embrace the responsibility that comes with being looked up to and harness the skills of identifying the strengths and weakness of your people to fit them in the right roles. There was a time in my career when my Line Manager noticed my potential and moved me into a role to enhance my skills-set and get me ready for the next level. I had come back from maternity leave at the time and took it the wrong way. My biases immediately stood out distinctly and I felt I was being sidelined because I was female, but my line manager was insistent. Years later, I got my epiphany and understood the whole point of the exercise – and I must say I have never stopped being thankful for it.
Eight years ago, I was told blatantly that I’d never make CEO by a Senior Group Executive I respected. He struck a mortal blow right through my ambitions, but I didn’t let that put me down. I remember leaving that meeting thinking “If someone’s going to give up, that won’t be me.” I delved deep into the recesses of my being and never wavered or despaired. I put my head down and relentlessly got to work to present a better version of myself.
A blueprint for success
A good leader possesses an uncanny amount of humility and a willingness to learn no matter the circumstance or environment. A leader also learns from the people they lead. It is absurd to think knowledge resides in one head; in fact, I think the greatest barrier to knowledge is the presupposition that we already know it. I have always surrounded myself with the best of people, much better than me.
In all my experiences, the lessons and approaches have been dynamic and yet full of the same central truths. Living in readiness or in expectation of the next opportunity fills you with the energy and urge to prepare, learn and know more. The Romans had a famous saying, “Victory loves Preparation,” and they could not have been so spot on. The yearning for constant reinvention and new discoveries must encompass any leader desiring to make a mark in their sphere of influence and beyond. I have come to cultivate a presence of mind in my journey where I always look for opportunities to make the biggest difference – whether at work, home or in society. It is not about defining a certain direction or ascribing labels to the kind of leadership we exhibit. Anytime I have been asked about my specific style of leadership, I hesitate because there is no one size fits all. It takes a commitment to hard work, learning from mistakes, willingness to always be a better version of your previous day and a lot of Grace!
It is a cliche that continues to permeate the corporate world with characteristic vigor. However, as I understand it, I do not embrace the thought that such a thing exists. As a leader, you have to make choices, you must be decisive. It is not a knock on your time management skills, it is rather a call for a strong and effective support system.
I am blessed to have a close knit family. Throughout my life and career, apart from God’s grace, they have been the backbone for my success. We support each other in every challenging situation, through prayers, encouragement, and unfettered love and that’s priceless!
Key takeaways on leadership
Leadership is a journey. It is one of unmitigated learning and investment. I invested in my journey, consciously or unconsciously, by the choices I made in building capacity, taking risks, helping others, fostering relationships, pushing myself outside my comfort zone and gaining visibility. As a mentor once told me, P = C x A2; where Performance (P) equals Capability (C) multiplied by a double dose of Attitude (A). The model highlights that to maintain a high level of performance, attitude is everything! It was a lesson that really struck a chord and stuck with me.
Learn to embrace the opportunities that come your way, identify mentors (in your sphere of influence or the external environment) and cultivate a habit of voracious reading. Above all, remember that success in business (any kind of business) is a team effort. It is better to move together and achieve more than to move alone and achieve little. Above all great grace Abounds!
By Abena Osei-Poku, Managing Director of Absa Bank Ghana Limited.