There are a lot of books out there on how to be a business leader – and a lot of budding entrepreneurs could make their first smart decision in business by not paying for those books. There’s often plenty of good advice contained within, but the books miss a valuable point, which is that there isn’t one specific way to be a business leader. Being a champion in business is not about how you shake hands, nor about building a myth around you. It’s about finding a way in which you, yourself, can be a success as a business leader.
The one thing which we can take from such books is that it is good to have a way of working in which you are reliably consistent. The Latin term modus operandi, best translated as “way of working” and usually shortened to “MO”, is one which you’ll come to associate with your business operations over time. Defining your MO will certainly help you not just in the early days, but throughout your business career. So how do you go about establishing your own? Generally, we all come to that conclusion gradually over time, but there are a few ways to establish yours a bit earlier by asking yourself the right questions.
Would you rather be liked or feared?
This question is often posed by people explaining their own MO and justifying why they can be blunt and difficult with their employees. The thinking goes – at least for most people asking the question – that it is better to be feared by one’s employees than to be liked. If they’re scared of you, they won’t step out of line, they’ll deliver their best at all times and will work to your specific instructions. Many among this cohort will even point to famous names, usually sport coaches, who have a reputation for being tough, but getting results. They often won’t know that their rule for business is a misquote of Machiavelli
One major reason that this question tends to bias in the direction of “fear” is that you almost never hear of the bosses who attempt to rule by fear but have no idea what they’re doing and end up deserted by employees. If you’re going to rule by fear, you had better be very good at the business side of things, because people aren’t forced to work for you. If you’re tough on them but can’t show you know how to drive a business forward, there’s nothing for them to gain by staying loyal.
Furthermore, the logical conclusion of this argument is that people won’t do their best for bosses who are kind and broadly liked. However, positive reinforcement works as well as the negative kind. In an era where it is common to bounce from job to unfulfilling job, getting your employees to feel like they’re invested in the company is just smart – and it’s easier if you’re liked.
Do you lead from the front or push from the back?
Some leaders sit at their desk and handle things from there. They will communicate their instructions through assistants or by email and won’t get among their workers often. This doesn’t mean that they are authoritarian leaders by nature – it’s just as possible that they are introverted and don’t want to give the impression that they are breathing down their employees’ necks.
There is no right answer to the “lead from the front or push from the back” question. They are simply different leadership styles. When you push from the back, you get in the center of things and show people how you want things done. Leading from the front is more about telling them, and both ways can get results. There are pitfalls to avoid on both sides of the coin – if you’re going to maintain a distance, you need to occasionally put in an appearance and speak to your employees as a group because people don’t like to work for a faceless totem. If you’re going to get in among things, you need to know when to stand back, because micromanaging will irritate employees and make them feel stifled.
Your answer to this question really comes down to what type of person you are. If you’re generally quiet and focused on results, you may be best standing back from the fray. If you prefer to exchange opinions and react to events, being at the center of things works best.
Are you a figurehead or a creative heart?
As a business leader, you will be responsible for setting the identity of your business. Some people grow their business by making canny decisions, acquiring a greater share of the market and buttressing their own reputation. Others grow by innovation, judging that their creativity is more valuable to the business than their identity.
Ask yourself why you are in business in the first place. To be clear, we’re all there to make at least some money, and there’s no harm in that. But is it the idea of business itself – testing yourself by pitting your wits against other businesses – that excites you? Or is it the chance to find and fill a gap in the market and gain a reputation by inventing new things that drives you? If it’s the former, then you’re more of a figurehead for the business, and should behave as such. If it’s the latter, you’re more of a creative heart and can let your products and services do the talking for you.
Either way, you need to lean into your natural inclination when defining your MO as a leader. Look at how to create an Email signature that suits your identity and craft your marketing literature in a way that fits with that. You can be successful either way, so it makes sense to go with the approach that is more “you”.
Taking inspiration, or plowing your own path?
There are enough eminently successful SEOs out there – with wealth in the billions and name recognition that some Hollywood actors would love to have – that they have spawned a generation of copycats. It makes sense that this will be the case – if you admire a Jeff Bezos or an Elon Musk, then it will feel natural to try and run your business the way they run theirs. After all, it worked for them, right?
The problem with this approach, though, is that business success doesn’t just come down to a management style. Often these people who have attained the upper echelons in global business will have had a more fortunate start than you did, and could afford to make mistakes and take gambles that you won’t be able to. When you can afford for a business to fail, it’s easier to just do what you want to do. And so it’s generally not a good idea to simply download a CEO’s autobiography and try to become them. There’s always an ingredient or two missing.
As a business leader, you’re always going to come to a point where you need to make a decision that isn’t covered in the textbooks and the autobiographies. You’re going to need to trust your own judgement and make a decision that you will have to stand by. If you’ve learned enough about business, you’ll have an instinct for the decision that makes the most sense. And – though people don’t like to hear this – sometimes either decision would work out fine, or neither would, so there’s no magic formula.
Establishing your own MO is a good thing to do early on in your business career. Hopefully you will always make decisions on the merits of the situation, but a good underlying philosophy will help you with some of the tougher questions.