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Leadership vs Management: How to truly lead

What makes a great leader? It’s a question that throws out a completely different answer with every individual you ask, and one that continuously shifts depending on where a business is in its journey. Throughout the years the concept of ‘leadership’ in business, and in life, has shifted and evolved countless times, perhaps never more drastically than in these past couple of years, as the pandemic triggered a seismic shift in our approach and attitudes towards work, and the people we work for.

To better understand the ever-changing nature of leadership, we invited three different decades' worth of Booking.com CEOs, each of whom has been at the helm of one of the world’s biggest travel platforms at various stages in its journey, to discuss the vital qualities of effective leaders. 

Below are four of the key areas that Geert-Jan Bruinsma (Founder & CEO until 2002), Kees Koolen (CEO 2002-2011) and Gillian Tans (CEO 2016-2019) highlighted throughout the session.

Empower to scale

Creating a clear, collective goal, one that unites your workforce across all departments is crucial to any business's success, particularly workforces in the midst of growth periods.

This common goal should embrace an inevitable variety of ideas and mindsets from different team members. As a leader, it’s up to you to not only understand a range of beliefs but to ensure the holder sees clearly how they can contribute to the company’s overarching mission statement. 

Reinforce this by offering autonomy and ownership of complex projects that contribute to the overall goal. This responsibility will go a long way in immersing an individual in the business and give them the confidence to share potentially priceless ideas in the future.

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Linear versus exponential growth

As Khalid Halim points out: “humans grow linearly, while the company grows exponentially”, so as a leader during periods of hypergrowth, clarity, shared vision and empowerment among team members prove more vital than ever before. It’s in these times that you often discover new leaders in your workforce, personalities that will prove integral when navigating tougher patches and phases of growth. 

Be BOLD. Encourage experimentation.

It’s essential that you breed a workplace culture that encourages experimentation, meaning the learning curves are all but certain to become a frequent occurrence. 

Of course, celebrate the victories, and when things don’t go according to plan, label these instances as experiments rather than mistakes. No successful organisation gets things right the first time, all of the time—but it’s these occasions that ultimately drive your growth in the long run.

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Don’t be held back by what you ‘know’

We often see leaders unknowingly held back by preconceived notions of what they believe does and doesn’t work based on past experiences. 

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that none of us can really know anything is 100% certain. In Buddhism there’s a concept called Shoshin, it means ‘beginner’s mind’. Shoshin refers to having an attitude of openness and eagerness to learn, while most importantly avoiding preconceptions when approaching a subject, an idea that should be adopted by all leaders whatever field your business operates in.

There is no set blueprint for the perfect leader. In fact, this person probably doesn’t exist at all. That’s because any leader should constantly be striving to learn from their team, their peers, and anyone that can offer a new perspective—the best leaders see these different viewpoints as an opportunity to improve upon themselves and pass them on to those they work with.


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