Are Your Leaders Authentic?

The other evening I was discussing leadership with a group of students from my local Business School. One of the students voiced his opinion that the interaction between the leader and the group of followers was fundamental to the success of the undertaking.

“Sure the relationship is important,” responded one of the group. ”but it’s only one aspect of a complexity of issues which arise in any situation. I tend to think that the relationship is the result of other factors that give rise to a scenario in which the team can flourish.”

“Such as?” came the instantaneous response.

“Well there’s all sorts of factors which influence the relationship most of which I believe are associated with the leader. For instance, if the leader doesn’t have a good understanding of who he is and what he stands for the how can he operate with integrity? The team will see straight through him”

“That’s right,” added another from within the group. “I’ve worked in several teams where this was the case. The leaders lose all credibility with their teams because their actions are not based on their core values. There is no legitimacy in their leadership position and the team understandably do not follow because there’s no trust.”

The discussion continued in a similar vain for some time. The concept of value-based action attracted wide support from within the group. Similarly strong ethics and a supportive moral perspective also achieved wide recognition from within the group. The question of the degree to which a leader should adapt his message to accommodate the needs of the group was much more contentious.

“Surely if the leader does not adapt his message to match the beliefs and values of the team he will fail to get the buy-in he needs to see the change through” protested a younger member of the group.

“But if he does that won’t he compromise his own values? Surely it would be better if he had the courage of his convictions and did what he felt was right” responded another. “At least if he took this approach he would have integrity outside his team as well”

“Hmm, good point” replied the younger member.

“Well, what do you think? “ he asked turning to me.

“Like most of you I think that leaders who don’t understand their purpose are doomed to failure. I’m also passionate that leaders should always try to do what’s right; I know this can be difficult in an organisational context but in the long run I believe it to be the best strategy. In  my book trust is the cornerstone for building the relationship with the team but remember it has to be both ways – you in them and them in you and lastly if the leader is not passionate about what he is doing then it’s time for him to move on and make way for someone who is. That just about covers it…….”

Are Your Leaders Born or Made?

I would not like to estimate the number of times I have been asked my opinion on whether leadership can truly be developed in an individual or does leadership stem from a combination of personal characteristics and attributes that some of us are fortunate to be born with. One such occasion arose recently when I was talking to a group of students at my local university.

“Well, let’s take a look at the evidence or lack of it” I suggested.

“First of all there is no generally accepted definition of Leadership. Indeed the last time I looked there were in the region of two hundred alternatives available to choose from! So the reality is that all of us carry around in our heads our own definition drawn from a combination of our experiences of both leading and being led and probably some sort of vision of the leader that we aspire to be.”

“Just think about that for a moment. Let’s say I asked you all to write down on a piece of paper a definition of leadership and what constitutes a good leader in the context of your definition. The range of answers would exceed the number of people in the group because some of you wouldn’t be able to make up your mind and would qualify your responses”

“To some of you Leadership is an expression of activity – creating a vision, communicating and the like – to others leadership is behavioural; it’s about values and characteristics and to some of you it’s about performance – how well something is done. Also, any measures that you have will be, almost without exception subjective – your own opinion”

“Let’s take an example” I continued. “A common premise within academic literature and has general support amongst practitioners is that leaders should be ‘self-aware’. Interestingly I cannot find anywhere an example of a model of self-awareness let alone one that is generally accepted and supported by documented evidence of applicability. This is just one example but it is fairly typical of the whole range and depth of leadership theory and research.”

“So what is the implication of this for both us and our organisations?” asked an individual from within the group.

“Well, if we assume that the objective of your organisation is to enhance its performance across a broad church of stakeholders and concurrently develop it future leadership potential which seems a reasonable assertion – do you think it has sufficient knowledge or the necessary tools and techniques to deliver on that?”

“Hmm, probably not. I suppose that’s why we always tend to choose the same type of individual for our leadership development programmes. You know the keen ones who make it pretty clear that they want to be leaders. The trouble is that most of them are only in it for themselves not to develop the rest of the organisation” he responded.

“Well that’s as maybe but the fact of the matter is that over time some of them do develop into the leaders your organisations want. The really interesting thing would be to find out why……”

Leadership Coaching…….

Like many experienced leaders I spend a considerable amount of my time coaching teams and individuals in various aspects of either personal or organisational development. I consider myself extremely fortunate that over the years my career has enabled me to develop a broad network of business and institutional leaders spanning a wide range of industries and sectors along with numerous world class academics that enables me to bring a rich diversity to this particular aspect of my work.

One of the most popular personal development topics, especially amongst those in the early stages of their development, is that of career management. Recently, during one such session, a thought struck me as I was discussing an individual’s potential options….

“I’m looking to use my current and next role as stepping stones into a management position prior to achieving executive status in the next 5 to 7 years” my mentee explained. “I’m looking to complete my professional qualification over the next two years and follow this up with an MBA; I’d appreciate your advice on which Business School would be most appropriate.” He added.

There was no hiding the individual’s ambition and desire to reach the upper levels within the organisation. As our conversation developed over the next hour or so his focus remained on the development of his technical skills and how he would develop his profile within the organisation.

“I want to run bigger and bigger projects and have responsibility for managing a large number of people. I want what I do to be really visible to the seniors” he concluded.

“OK it’s pretty clear you have a handle on how you are going to develop technically” I commented.  “So tell me how do you intend to develop your leadership skills? If I were to ask you what you will be like in 7 years’ time what would you say? What will you bring to the organisation? What will be your defining qualities?”

It was clear from his reaction to this line of questioning that he had applied very little thinking to this particular aspect of his development. His responses quickly reverted to an expression of his technical skills and what he could do. I explained to him that whilst be able to deliver projects was a very important attribute his success and progression within the organisation would be heavily dependent on the development of his leadership capability and that he would need to devote as much energy if not more to this than to his technical skills.

The polarity of this conversation caused me to reflect back on similar discussions that I’d had with other early career high potential people in the past. Whilst there was no doubting that this was an extreme example of one of those conversations it was evident that the underlying bias was present in many of the other conversations.

So when did we learn to value ourselves, especially in the eyes of others, by what we do rather than who we are? Which of our other evaluation criteria are similarly flawed? How should our contribution be measured and rewarded that reflects our real contribution to the organisation through our interaction with those within it?

More worryingly when was the last time that any of us, irrespective of the stage of our career, sat down and evaluated whether our chosen path was truly reflective of our sense of purpose and meaning giving rise to fulfilment of our expression of achievement and well-being?

Hmmm… in my case it’s been quite some time…

Leadership Development…….

I recently received an email from a colleague who I had been working with for several weeks on a project with a small but highly influential organisation. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that his reason for contacting me was to share the news that he was considering leaving his current employer and to ask me if I would consider providing him with some coaching support.

Our subsequent conversation followed an all too familiar path.

“I’m pretty much like everybody else on our Leadership Development programme” he confided. “I was originally selected because I contributed more than the others. I stood out because I was more committed and was highly motivated. I got things done”

“That’s pretty normal in my experience” I responded. “A lot of organisations start their selection process using similar criteria. Don’t under estimate the value of being a good doer but I think I know what you are experiencing”

“Yes I know how important it is to deliver but having got onto the programme I find that it’s not developing me as leader – well not how I think I should be developed anyway. Everything is focussed on me not on the people that I’m supposed to be leading. It’s about tools and techniques in the main and doesn’t seem to recognise that as a leader I also need to develop others to become the leaders of tomorrow. This aspect is completely missing”

His frustration was evident for everyone to see.

“You know it’s strange but pretty much everyone that I coach is on a leadership programme of some sort or another. Some like the early career graduates have to be; others are on them through choice but most of them share a similar experience to you” I responded.

“The real irony is that my organisation is totally focussed on measuring outcomes, deliverables and the quality of everything we do. Everything, that is, apart from the quality and outcome of our leadership. It isn’t even on our radar screen”

“And that’s what you would like to talk with me about” I said.

“Yes” he replied confidently.

I rather thought it might be…..

Leadership and Organisational Procrastination…

At a recent dinner with a group of leaders the topic of conversation drifted onto why organisations develop a tendency to condone poor leadership behaviours.  It seemed that everybody in the group could recite an example from their personal experience of how the organisations in which they worked, not only justified the lack of appropriate behaviour but in many instances rewarded the behaviour through inappropriate reward systems.

The general consensus was that, over time, organisations seem to have a natural tendency to decay that is very often masked from the leadership as the organisation drives operational improvement. It’s as if the organisation develops a blind spot to its loss of strategic direction and agility.

“One organisation that I worked in developed a sophisticated methodology to ensure that all stakeholders were included in the decision making process.” regaled one of the executives. “Everybody’s viewpoint was researched, evaluated, considered and weighed against the others to demonstrate adherence to the organisational values of consensus and inclusivity. It was institutionalised procrastination of the first order. We had completely lost our way – everybody knew it but nobody seemed empowered to do anything about it”

There was much sympathetic nodding from the rest of the group.

“It’s almost as if it has become acceptable to do the wrong thing as long as we can demonstrate that we are doing it well.” continued the executive. The ensuing nervous laughter was evidence that this comment had touched a nerve with the group.

As the conversation developed it became increasingly evident that many of the executives felt the issue was that the goals of their organisations were becoming distorted. The complexity of the organisation structure coupled with increasingly sophisticated processes had led to a blurring of the organisation’s deliverables. The focus had moved from the strategic imperative to process efficiency resulting in a loss of overall direction.

“Seems to me that your organisations have become inward facing” retorted one of the group. “Surely the first question to be asked is why you are doing something; does it match the customer requirement. If yes then make sure you do it to the best of your ability. If no, ….well I think you might know the answer to that already.”

Leadership, Learning and Curiosity…

A couple of months ago during a coaching session a recent MBA graduate asked me which courses he should consider to further develop his business skills.

“My advice would be to take up something creative preferably in the performing arts arena” I responded after a few moments thought, “As a future leader you will need to be comfortable working with groups of people in all sorts of circumstances. I’d think about joining a local amateur dramatic group or at least take a course in public speaking preferably with exposure to the media”

Later on that evening I sat reviewing the notes that I’d made during the session. My thoughts began to wander and I found myself thinking about what were the most important leadership traits – a topic that occupies a considerable portion of my waking hours.

Fundamentally I believe that at the core of Leadership are the personal traits, characteristics and values that provide the leader with the ability to create change and opportunity in any given situation. However, I believe that there is a characteristic that all great leaders have in common that enables them to transcend differing leadership situations with apparent ease.

It’s a commonly held view, by practitioners and academics alike, that a primary skill of a good leader is to be able to learn from a situation and apply that learning in a differing scenario – in essence to bring the wisdom acquired in one circumstance to the aid of another. A key differentiator of the modern leader is not only the ability to learn more from a given situation than those around him but also to take that abstract learning and apply it in differing contexts.

So what is it that the skilled leader does that others don’t?  What is the special attribute that great leaders have in abundance?

The answer in my experience is quite simply………curiosity.

The curiosity that causes them to question what others take for granted. The curiosity that opens up a world of new opportunities and possibilities. The curiosity that opens their mind to new ideas and novel insights where others only see the tried and tested. The curiosity that provides the vision to innovate and take risk. The curiosity that stimulates the challenge within them to take things to the next level. Above all the curiosity that underpins their ability to learn.

The following morning I met up with the MBA graduate over coffee.

“Remind me to talk to you about Leadership traits at our next session. I want to develop what we were talking about yesterday in a different direction.” I said as we sat down.

“Sure will” he responded. “Sounds an interesting topic, I’m really curious!”

“Good….”

Leadership and Innovation….

Many of the organisations that I work with claim to share a common dilemma – how to manage the paradox between leadership and innovation within their respective organisations. In my experience these organisations also have something else in common being a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both leadership and innovation in this context.

Whilst this scenario may be understandable given the relative size of many of these organisations; what is less so is where this dilemma exists within larger organisations whose future is highly dependent on their ability to manage innovation – a situation I witnessed first-hand during a conference visit last year.

During the last five years I have been fortunate to develop a working relationship with Frank Hull of the Strategy Research Group, a US based consulting group that specialises in the effective deployment of the innovation process. Frank and his team have spent the best part of the last twenty years studying the factors that differentiate those organisations for which effective innovation is so deeply embedded within the organisation psyche that it is truly second nature.    (See www.srgtime.com for further information).

In essence Frank and his team share with us is that innovation can only truly be effective within an organisation by the total organisation coming together and working as one – its strategy, processes, organisation and tools need to be completely aligned. Innovation is the product of incremental development throughout the organisation, often occurring over substantial time periods, with breakthrough development often being characterised as occurring within the white space between organisational disciplines. It is this organisation wide perspective of innovation that is generally not well understood by the leadership of the organisations that I work with.

The leadership imperative within this paradigm is that of creating an environment where diversity is rigorously encouraged and organisational potential is fully exploited. Leadership by default, therefore, must be from behind – I am reminded of the quote of Nelson Mandela who described a leader as being “…like a shepherd. He stays behind his flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind” (1)

 

(1) – Long Walk To Freedom – Nelson Mandela (1995)

So What Exactly Is The Role Of Leadership……

On a recent overseas trip I was wonderfully reminded of how well executed leadership can transform a run of the mill organisation into a world class operation.  On the first day of a week-long engagement with a new client I asked where we were going to take lunch.

“That’s easy” was the swift response “we’ll go to Rita’s. It’s a little further away but it’s the best place in town.” Sure enough the food was excellent, the service prompt and all of the staff were totally focused on providing exactly what each customer wanted. They seemed to sense who was in a hurry, who wanted to relax and most importantly, in my case at least, who needed help with the local dishes on the menu.

As we journeyed back to the plant I noticed how many deli’s similar to Rita’s there were in town and also how busy Rita’s had been in comparison. Somehow these other places didn’t seem to be hitting the mark. I commented on this to my host who shared with me that most of the other places survived on seasonal holiday trade but all the locals wouldn’t dream of using anywhere else.

As the week progressed the lunchtime trip to Rita’s became a ritual. I was fascinated by how smoothly the operation was being run. The seamless relationship between the staff serving customers and the chefs in the kitchen; how each customer was treated as an individual, how telephone orders were routinely handled alongside the ebb and flow of the over the counter and sit down trade.

Towards the end of the week I found myself driving past Rita’s after an evening trip to the cinema and decided to drop in for a coffee. As usual the welcome was warm and friendly and the espresso was meticulously prepared even though the place was busy as always. A few minutes passed and things quietened down and I was engaged in conversation by a member of the staff.

After answering  the normal enquiries about had I enjoyed my visit and would I be coming back I found myself telling her how much I had enjoyed my lunchtime visits to Rita’s and how impressed I was with how well it was being run.

“We all know how important each customer is and how we need to get it right throughout the day.” she explained. “The businessman dropping in for a quick coffee ,  couples meeting for a leisurely chat and bite to eat, school  kids picking up something for their break are all equally important. We know how we need to operate as a team to ensure that they all go away happy. We change the menu everyday to keep things fresh – that’s down to the chefs but we make sure we share all the feedback we get from the customers”

“Fascinating” I said “you know I’d love to meet whoever is in charge.”

Even with my limited knowledge of the local language it was evident to me that my comment had caused some amusement amongst the staff within earshot.

“Well Rita still owns the place if that’s what you mean but she hasn’t worked here for several years. We basically run the place how she did all those years ago. We all know what to do and we all work together to get it done. Any decisions are made as we go along – who needs a leader? We are all leaders here”

As I sat looking into my second espresso I pondered the profound simplicity of this message. I doubt very much if Rita had ever heard of Mary Parker Follett* who enthused all those years ago that the essential work of a leader was to create more leaders – seems she just knew it was the right thing to do.

*The Creative Experience – Mary Parker Follett, 1924

When Power and Influence Collide…..

Earlier this year I was working with the management team of a logistics provider during an organisational restructuring brought about by the implementation of a new operating system.  As usual in these circumstances there was a fair amount of tension inside the organisation as the team members struggled to cope with closing out the old system, preparing to launch the new and come to terms with the new management structure.

The transition to the new system had been carefully planned in conjunction with the systems provider. The process changes to accommodate the new operating system had been mapped out and an extensive organisational re-design had taken place with supporting input from the existing team members.  An extensive training programme had been devised to support the implementation to ensure a seamless transition and a brief had been prepared for communication to the customer network.

A key focus of attention for the management team during the run up to implementation was to put in place an escalation process to deal with any issues as they arose to minimise customer disruption. The maintenance of the contracted service levels during the implementation was of paramount importance to secure the company’s future market position.

As the implementation drew near every team member underwent extensive training in how to operate the new system and the team leaders were given further training to accommodate the new escalation process. At ‘go-live’ all seemed well – customer feedback had been positive and no major issues had arisen during the run-up although team morale did seem to be on the wane.

In the weeks that followed the new system operated well but morale continued to fall with arguments becoming common place amongst the team members. Error rates were beginning to escalate and on several occasions customer deliveries had not been met.  I attended several team briefs during this period and also undertook ‘water fountain’ chats with individual team members to try to understand what was wrong.

It was during one of these chats that a picture began to emerge.

“ The problem is that the team no longer know who to turn to” confided one of the younger members.” In the old world everybody knew who the experts were. We didn’t need help from management – we knew who to go to and how to fix things ourselves “

“The thing is,” he went on “the old guard still think they are in a position to influence the team. The reality is that they are no longer the experts and the people that really do understand the new system cannot make themselves heard”

“Have you shared this with your supervisor?” I asked.

“Not much point really” he said. “The management are fine for the formal stuff but the real leaders are within the team – we need to fix this ourselves”

Leadership in Hindsight….

My responses to the couple of comments on last week’s blog set me thinking about how easy it is to form an opinion on the performance of a leadership team when the outcome is known. It reminded me of a conversation that I’d had a couple of years ago with a group of senior managers whose performance was under scrutiny following a particularly difficult year.

As you might expect in the circumstances the managers were feeling pretty defensive in response to their perception of the organisation resorting to blame culture. As the conversation developed over the evening it was pretty clear that the vast majority of the group felt that they were being unfairly treated and being held responsible for things that were totally outside of their control.

Interestingly what developed from this conversation was a really lively and informed debate on the subject of performance appraisal and hence what constituted ‘good’ leadership. The majority of the group were pretty comfortable with the notion that leaders should be both creative and innovative in moving the organisation forward although the detractors were quick to point out the restrictions that organisational structures and processes could have.

Where the debate really came to life, however, was when the discussion turned to what constituted the role of a leader and was this affected by context. After a lengthy and often heated debate the group pretty much agreed that leadership was contingent on circumstance and therefore whilst there was a considerable degree of commonality in leading in any situation the individual circumstance would promote differing behaviours.

As a consequence, therefore, a key element of the role of the leader is that of diagnostician; the ability to analyse and interpret the situation and subsequently anticipate the outcomes of the planned activities is fundamental to exercising good leadership practice. Unless the leader has a sound understanding of the context in which he is operating then his efforts will go unrewarded.

It was at this stage I entered the debate for the first time.

“So what is the implication of this on how you are being assessed?” I asked.

“Well there’s the paradox” came the response. “If they follow and the outcome meets the target and there’s no fall-out then we are good leaders; if they don’t or it doesn’t then we are not. Our performance is judged solely on the outcome of what THEY do”

Amen to that.