‘Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.’

Based on his experience, João Torres Pereira explains how a good leader is defined. In the present and in the future. And among many other reflections on the topic of leadership.

Through meetings, workshops, and other activities that take place throughout the year, MCG continuously fosters strong work with the leaders of all teams. In this dynamic, João Torres Pereira, a management and leadership consultant, has been one of the individuals actively involved in the process. Therefore, we wanted to learn about his most recent reflections on the importance of leadership in organizations.

MCG: How can we define leadership?

JTP: We could very well start the other way around, and it would be relatively easy to come up with a definition: leadership is a process of influence. There, it would be said. But I think the topic requires slightly broader and “out of the box” thinking. Looking even at the word itself, does leadership have anything to do with dance? Indeed, I find some analogies with dance. We can even go further and say that the leader dances, the leader must dance, and effectively know their partner, they must lead in that dance; and the partner must allow themselves to be led.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

It is almost like an act of love, where there is always one who loves and another who allows themselves to be loved. Here, allowing oneself to be loved does not necessarily mean having to love; it is truly, voluntarily, enthusiastically, and motivationally loving, allowing oneself to be surrendered to the leader, in this case. But, in a concise way, leadership is a process of influence.

MCG: Is leadership an innate skill or can anyone, with the right training, become a leader?

JTP: From a philosophical point of view, I would like to say that everyone indeed comes with a good dose of leadership attributes. However, it is us (and the relationship we establish with our own circumstances) who improve (or not) those attributes that were initially given to us throughout life. However, it happens that some people already bring those attributes somewhat more awakened and developed, which is not necessarily a condition for them to acquire significant leadership attributes throughout their lives.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

Because those who achieve significant attributes are the ones who work on themselves, those who study themselves, those who prepare themselves, and those who train themselves. And since leadership is related to virtues, all I can say is that the more they are practiced, the more they are possessed. So, the attributes of leadership, which are numerous, the more they are practiced, the more they are possessed.

MCG: But in many companies, the leader is the one who shows the most competence in certain roles over time. Do you agree with this kind of “career plan”? 

JTP: We need to be careful with the labels we put on things. In reality, most of the companies I have encountered over the decades promoted those who performed well in any other role to positions of managerial responsibility. “Since you are good at preaching and have been preaching for ten or twenty years, now you will oversee people. You will be the leader of those people.” Here, the label itself is biased because this has nothing to do with leadership. It is about performing a task well, while what is required of someone who will oversee people may have very little to do with that task performed in the past.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

It’s a new life. It involves new attributes, new qualities, and new competencies that are demanded when we take responsibility for someone and must have the ability to make that person perform. It’s not about what we do, because a leader is like a sublime manager who must “make others do.” Often, the leader was mistaken for the one who performed well, not the one who made others perform well.

So, to avoid incorrect labels and not create frustrations for people in ill-fitting roles, we have to pay attention to the attributes required of a leader and the responsibility a leader should have. The attributes of a leader are not related to the performance of a task over the years but to the preparation they have undergone in life for the universal performance of leadership. It must be a 360-degree leadership, ongoing, increasingly evolutionary (as required in any procedure, and even more so here), and leadership that is not innate but has been developed and continues to develop.

MCG: How can we identify a leadership profile? Could there be a kind of intuition involved?

JTP: This question takes me back a bit. I could also give a more immediate, objective, concise, perhaps straightforward answer: no one can choose a leader if they are not one. No one can choose a good leader if they do not deeply understand the attributes required for leadership.

But let’s go back and delve into the concept of intuition that was mentioned. The learning process: I learn things, and gain knowledge. Many people stop there and think that having this knowledge is enough to perform well. It’s not. With this knowledge, you must change your behavior. But that’s still not enough because a person can learn, have the knowledge, and understand that they must do certain things to change their behavior based on what they have learned. They must take another step.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

And that step is to make their attitude, their belief, change. “I understand this knowledge, I have changed my behavior, and from now on, I will not let go of this procedure, based on the knowledge I have acquired. And then I have to do this many times, practice these virtues a lot.” And from that moment on, things come intuitively. It is only at that point that intuition comes into play when choosing a leader.

So, when I choose a person and say that they have leadership characteristics (and I don’t always know the path they have taken to gain this intuition), it’s important for them to be aware of what leads me to have this intuition, which actually has an explanation: learning, changing behavior, and changing attitude for my own self-awareness. That’s where intuition comes from. And it may seem like it’s by the grace of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not. In these leadership attributes, which are crucial in attracting people to the organization, I cannot afford to make mistakes when selecting.

MCG: How can we achieve this in a series of job interviews?

JTP: To achieve this, I must prepare the interviews very well. I must ask questions that lead to useful answers for my decision-making process. I need to ask very objective questions that will provide me with a clear, complete, and coherent understanding of the person. It needs to be synchronous so that I understand exactly what the person means. This will allow me to decide.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

To obtain this type of response, to get to know a candidate in so few interviews, it must be done this way. And if even after that, I am not confident with the interview I have and that the candidate can be a good leader, then it is better to do another one. And another one, and another. The problem may lie with me as a leader and not with the candidate. I may not be asking the right questions to elicit a response that is useful for my decision-making. As a leader, it is my responsibility to question if that is the case because the one who questions leads.

I need to lead the candidate voluntarily, with enthusiasm and motivation, to respond to me in the clearest way possible. I need to be a positive catalyst, someone deserving of trust. It is necessary to be a true teacher because a teacher must be a leader. Not so much because of what they say, but because of what they create in their students – interest, awakening, and enthusiasm so that they seek knowledge beyond the lessons being taught. The teacher only kicks off and initiates that necessary movement toward seeking information and knowledge. An infinite desire to learn about what the teacher was able to awaken. In an interview, it is the same. We have to be motivators for the person to speak, especially if they are not very talkative.

MCG: Do we run the risk of having a new generation with fewer leaders, with less capacity to influence?

JTP: It may be generational, yes. But it’s not the generation’s fault… The following phrase is not mine, but I will use it anyway: every block of granite holds a beautiful statue within; the question is how to remove the excess material. Generations are blocks of granite. Those who work with them, the older generations (who accompany the younger ones), must know how to remove the excess material to create a beautiful statue. What happened in the past was that conditions were created for these individuals, which now make us say, “Ah, they don’t like to talk to anyone these days.” But did their parents talk to them?

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

Furthermore, with technology, there are many situations in which young people can solve things on their own, whether with their mobile phones or the Internet. And then they are alone. They are not given the attributes and conditions to perform leadership roles well. I know several companies where a significant portion of people don’t even want to answer phone calls. They don’t want to interact with people. They do things individually. And leadership, like dancing, can only be done as a pair. And there needs to be a “climate,” good “music,”a good “atmosphere.” If these conditions are not created, leadership does not develop.

And then leadership has a very interesting characteristic: perhaps the main attribute for exercising leadership is communication. But it must be communicated with great precision and great accuracy. We must verify understanding; we must see if the message is received. One of the attributes of a leader is certainly being a good communicator. And being a good communicator is not about speaking well for oneself but speaking well for others. So that others understand with minimal noise (ideally with no noise at all) the message I want to convey, with all its content.

Leadership requires, and demands, that communication be exercised. Furthermore, it is impossible not to communicate. Communication is one of the fundamental attributes of human beings. If we observe closely, we cannot create a moment of non-communication. Gestures, silence, and everything is always a form of communication. Now, if leadership is almost a common ground in communication, let’s say that every moment of communication requires moments of leadership.

Because, as a leader, whenever I am communicating, it is to influence someone or something. Consider the sublimity of this dream of leadership. It is almost like philosophy, it is something very universal, almost unique. Almost as if knowing about leadership, which requires knowing many things, already means knowing everything, just like in philosophy. That is why people need to be prepared for the exercise of leadership at every moment. Furthermore, in an organization, leadership belongs to everyone and each individual.

MCG: In an increasingly individualistic society, potential leaders are thus losing attributes…

JTP: It is leadership as a virtue. We have already seen that leadership, which is a set of virtues, the more it is practiced, the more one possesses. Because the most basic virtues – justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, which is the “mother” of all virtues – are very earthly virtues, for those who believe in them. And it is well known that this theory of virtues affirms just that: the more they are practiced, the more one possesses. Some even say that the three divine virtues – faith, charity, and hope – do not enjoy this property as much, as it is the divine that bestows them to a certain extent. Now, all the others, the more they are practiced, the more one possesses, there is no doubt about that.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

Thus, leadership, the more it is practiced, the more one possesses. If it is not practiced, it diminishes. Therefore, this generation, this group of people for whom global conditions, their own conditions, and the circumstances they have experienced have determined that they become people for the small exercise of leadership, now have a minimum amount of aptitude for leadership. And this does not have to be a serious issue if it is compensated with strong injections of training in this matter. Because people also know how to think for themselves; fortunately, human beings have that capacity. This is understood if one accepts change, and feels a great desire to learn more.

Because a leader has another great attribute among all the others: they educate to educate. And in educating, they are educating themselves. I really like the French word apprendre. We have one word for the one who teaches and another for the act of learning, but in French, there is only one word for both the person who teaches and the act of learning. It is teaching to learn. Just like in teaching: “When I give classes, I am the one who learns the most.” There is a process, a relationship, and a strong principle of communicating bonds between what is given and what is received. In other words, the practice of leadership itself implies a lot of learning.

MCG: Let us do an exercise, the exercise of the 3S. In the generation of MCG’s founder, people worked in the company for survival. This is the first S. People transitioned from working in the fields to working in the industry. Then, in the next generation, people worked at MCG for security, which is the second S. It was a job for life. And leadership was easier in that context. Today, we believe that the third S is that of a dream. In their work, individuals seek experience, something they enjoy, and a purpose. Even if it means constantly changing companies. How do we lead those who are pursuing a dream, especially when various studies indicate that many people leave a company because of their leader?

JTP: This exercise invites us to think and reminds me that the world of today and the future will not be a world of knowing many things. The world will undoubtedly belong to those who know how to think about something. I recently met a very intelligent farmer who said that he wants to work less because he needs to save time for thinking… Regarding leadership, this exercise makes complete sense. In the past, people accepted reasonable leadership because what mattered was earning their daily bread. Then, they accepted even lesser forms of leadership because they had to be there for survival and security. Now, people have more difficulty tolerating lesser leadership qualities because their dreams, demands, and the world, in general, have shaped them into different and more demanding individuals. Thus, it is possible for these individuals to leave companies not because of their dreams, but due to the failure of their superiors to meet reasonable standards of leadership.

'Leadership is a set of virtues: the more you practice, the more you have.' MCG

João Torres Pereira and Pedro Pereira, Employee and Customer Experience Director at MCG.

This may seem like a linear perspective, but I add the following to this exercise: in the first period, when people were in companies for survival, the standards of leadership were extremely high. Because there were more men like Manuel da Conceição Graça. People for whom other people mattered greatly. I had the privilege of knowing the great man from MCG. That gentleman, that communicator, that friend of the people, the man who walked around the factory and constantly heard, “Oh Mr. Manel!” Such proximity… This can only be achieved through great leadership. One of the expressions I heard from him is that we must be very attentive to our customer’s wallet.

What did he mean by that? It is an expression of one of the main attributes of a leader: when in doubt, we decide against ourselves. Because we don’t want the customer or another person to be at a disadvantage. So, when faced with uncertainty in a particular situation, we prefer to say, “No. You keep it, not me.” This exercise of leadership from that time is not easy to observe today. In conclusion, not only do the demands for leadership attributes increase from those entering an organization, but also the excuses for their absence and the tolerance for their absence decrease. The great men of the past exercised leadership with much greater quality.

This is why when people are asked today why they left a company, they have no doubt in saying: it is due to the lack of trust in my boss, and lack of time to talk, listen, help, advise, and support. To receive words of praise or guidance for my path, to be close to me. This is why a leader is not inspiring, why they are not adored and loved. And when one does not adore or love a person, they leave. And they abandon an entire organization that may even function differently and often seeks to provide other things to its people, such as recognition and conditions, etc. All because the boss of these individuals is not meeting their expectations in terms of the attributes of human relationships that a leader should possess consistently and improve upon at every moment.

MCG: What will the leader of the future be like? Will they be merely a procedural leader, a conductor of people, or something that involves even some “sacrifice”?

JTP: Certainly, the leader is not just a manager; they are not even a unilateral leader of people, nor a person who manages their goals to ensure their career and conditions without realizing that their goals are made by others. Their objectives should primarily focus on measuring KPIs that relate to others rather than just the organization. Therefore, the leader must be someone focused on the well-being of others, on the happiness of others. Before that, on the freedom of others. The word that is closely related to leadership is the word freedom.

In today’s world, what happens is that people have lost their freedom and are not aware of it. Not the freedom related to politics, but freedom related to dreams, beliefs, the desire to improve every moment, and to leave a better world for their children. The example of a teacher, who should be an inspiring leader… Why aren’t some teachers being that? Because they have lost their freedom. They lost it from the moment they had to choose their profession. Many teachers followed that path because they had no alternative and they do it without any passion or vocation. Only a few people can turn their profession into something they enjoy…

A person can say that throughout 40 years of work, they never liked what they did. This is despite being dedicated and successful. They learned to like it. They found a way to make their profession attractive. They managed to transform that tasteless, inert, colorless substance into something more enjoyable. Today, not everyone has such great resilience and adaptability to make that transformation, which is why they end up becoming teachers without much passion or strength to truly be teachers and make their profession enjoyable.

Since teachers are expected to have high leadership standards, good teachers are greatly admired by their students. The students will remember that good teacher they had. In very few professions, this happens so intensely and is so well evaluated.

Therefore, the leader of the future, given the unusual conditions the world has today – access to wisdom, good means of communication, and levels of intelligence… – has everything to become an exemplary leader. And they will be. I don’t know if there will be enough of them, but it is certain that significant changes in society have never been made with everyone fully committed to them. It has always been with an elite or a dominant class setting the pace. This may sound bad, but I believe that a dominant class, in the good sense, made up of individuals with exceptional human qualities, highly developed in these attributes, will turn people into true “maestros,” true Karajans.

MCG: With the emergence of remote work, is it possible to lead from a distance? Is it possible to lead those who are absent?

JTP: Leading through absence is not possible. Being absent means not being present. La Fontaine already said that absence is the cause of all evils. The leader must have the strength to be present even when it’s difficult. We often think, “I won’t go, I don’t feel like it.” And then, after going, I have a self-criticism that tells me, “No, actually I will go. I have to go.” And once I’m there, I think, “Look at what I would have missed if I hadn’t come…”. So, to answer the question, absence is the cause of all evils. Absence is not possible in leadership.

Now, distance… I would even say that the greater and better the leadership standards, the more distance is allowed. And what is the variable most linked to this? It’s trust. The more trust I have, the farther away the person being led can be. But this doesn’t mean being absent. I must be in constant contact with them, communicating not to monitor them but to maintain a good relationship and bonds of friendship and closeness. It is almost desirable for the distance to grow so that we can measure the trust I have in people.

Due to circumstances and changes brought about by external variables that have made us work remotely, we may be more inclined to accept that people can work from home. Those who lead others. In the past, we had doubts about whether people would work while at home, but after these recent years, certainly, the awareness of people who oversee others is this: “You can work from home, I have full trust in you.” This is unless the attribute of trust, which is the “cement” of this whole concept, has not been developed and has been compromised. There can be no distance without trust.

Based on what I experience today and what I believe to be the future, we can increasingly be at home, apart. But not absent. These changes that forced us to adapt are much more positive than negative. They are steps forward that we need to refine. Therefore, yes to distance, but never to absence.

MCG: Is it possible to enjoy being led and not want to be a leader? Are there people who accept leadership positions only because it improves their conditions?

JTP: To clarify the “waters”: there are people who do not accept their leader well. If this happens, the problem lies with the leader, it is the leader’s responsibility. The leader either has the attributes to resolve this situation or not. The act of excluding someone is undesirable. “I don’t want this person on my team because they don’t accept my leadership.” If this happens, it questions the leader’s ability. In extreme cases, exclusion is accepted, but only in extreme situations. Because excluding is much easier than including. Generally, people do not accept their leader well because their leader is not a leader; they are actually a foreman, a boss. They are just a manager.

If they were a leader, people would like them and have great admiration for them. They would speak well of them, not poorly. They would praise them constantly. This needs to be emphasized first. Secondly, when we confront some people with the possibility of leading someone, they say that if they could, they would accept it only for the perks. They want to enjoy the benefits without the costs. The problem is that these people do not yet understand the pleasure of these so-called costs. Because the exercise of leadership should ignite passion in both sides, the leader and the one being led. The leader is much more satisfied by giving praise to their collaborator than if the praise were directed at themselves. It brings them a high level of happiness. They are very happy when their collaborator is recognized for their leadership, not out of vanity but genuine recognition. This can be worth more than a salary, more than many tangible and material benefits. People who don’t want to be leaders haven’t yet realized the great benefit that leadership and the integration of people brings, the ability to make people happy, and the happiness it brings to oneself. And so, they refuse because “leading people is hard work.” But they would welcome a salary increase or a company-provided vehicle. And whose responsibility is it for these people not to understand the real benefits? It is the responsibility of those who lead them. It is a chain reaction, fortunately.

MCG: So, someone leads only to please their leader, without respect for those beneath them…

JTP: There is an excessive respect for unhealthy obedience, for servitude. For politically correct agreement. For accepting mistreatment from those who lead. The leader is shaped by the demands of their subordinates as well. I shape my leader. People must be demanding of their leader. If they are subservient, I am hindering the performance of my leader… In the hierarchical structure, I must be much more demanding of my leader than of my subordinates. That’s how the process works.

I am strongly damaging my chain of command if I am not demanding to this extent from those who lead me. The chain of command must be well-oiled in this sense. It should be short, not overly vertical so that the distance between the base and the top is not infinite. People should know who is at the top of the pyramid. All of this is to facilitate leadership so that it is “contaminated” laterally.

MCG: Is there an ideal number of members for each team being led?

JTP: I don’t know the exact number, but it must be a reasonable number. There is a notion that the exact number should be the one that doesn’t make me lose contact and relationship with my subordinates. It’s when I start to feel that my routine tasks are harming the contact I have with my subordinates. That’s the limit. We mentioned earlier that teachers must be good leaders, but the class cannot have 200 students, right? Teachers and doctors are being asked to meet demands that cause them to lose their relationship with their students and patients. In this case, they will not be able to exert leadership over people; it is also a process of influence.

We must be very careful about the size of teams; we cannot exceed the exact number that makes us feel that there are employees we do not know in the detail that we would like for the current exercise of leadership and closeness with them.

MCG: How do you view the work that MCG has been doing in the field of leadership?

JTP: My answer to this question is very simple and heartfelt, you can’t imagine… The leadership coefficient is such that after more than ten years of collaborating with MCG, I still feel like being here. Behaviors, attitudes… Leadership is widely spread throughout the company, and the true attributes of leadership are deeply rooted. I am happy to have contributed to that, as many others have.

This is so evident, and the person at MCG closest to me, José Graça Medeiros [the CEO of MCG], has shown behaviors of true leadership towards me, which still makes me feel loyal to the company. Even from a distance, but not absent. It is the fairest qualification I can give to what MCG has as vectors of leadership spread throughout this factory.

But this requires great responsibility: to ensure its continuity. The management, all the employees, me included. At every moment, we all must be concerned with that “pocket,” the customer, as the company’s founder said. Concerned that at every moment, this customer, who is the employee, is happy, satisfied, that the leader is close to them, greeting them every day at the factory, keeping an eye on them. And that the leader is always in a good mood, leading a joyful life, both inside and outside of work, with friends… A complete life. But something that doesn’t make us lose sight of the fundamental focus on the customer, the internal and external customer. It is a great responsibility and at the same time, great enthusiasm, great emotion, a strong desire for this factor, this coefficient of leadership within the company, to grow. Because if it’s already good, it has a lot of room to grow!