Friday, Dec 3, 2021

The Art of Leadership is Found in the Application

Virtually everyone, or just about everyone seeks to better understand the art of leadership. Many claim it as a title or position. It is clearly defined by a few, and yet often exercised by the unheralded. In fact, although we believe we know a lot about leadership; it is the application of leadership that creates confusion for most.

Despite all the leadership content, containing a veritable plethora of theories about leadership (each of which is THE KEY), leadership remains a very individual concept, exercised in many diverse yet successful ways. Indeed, successful application always results in leadership.

Unsuccessful application is invariably counter-productive. So, is this another theory? No, but I will share with you some of my observations about where to look for leadership. It’s my belief that although we may not be able to define it precisely, we can recognize it when we see it.

Formal and Informal Leadership

We know that there are people called “formal leaders” and “informal leaders” in some of the literature. I will not talk about those “formal leaders” here because they are by definition occupying positions of authority (i.e., a supervisory position) and that is their sole claim to leadership. “Informal leaders,” on the other hand, exercise leadership from positions not formally designated for leadership, thus possibly causing a problem or confusion for the organization.

How the informal leader arises is curious, but the lack of leadership can often be the cause of it in the “formal” position. But that doesn’t mean that the “great man” theory takes place (that’s the one that says when a crisis occurs and there’s no one prepared to deal with it, someone will rise to the occasion and deal with it). Why is someone not in a leadership position given authority by the group in which they work to exercise leadership?

There are, of course, several answers to that question, so let’s examine some of them. Perhaps the one who is the leader is a confident person (at least confidently acting) with a bit of charisma, thus one who offers logical answers to questions from the group, and who can demonstrate that they have good ideas. We often see this in groups that begin by discussing particular problems; if no one is specifically “in charge,” the leader who emerges is often the person who demonstrates the most passion about the topic.

Or, they may simply be someone who is impatient for action, and goads others into a particular action that appears to achieve some common goals. Here, the group will rally behind the “visionary.” Sometimes, the visionary doesn’t have much of a vision, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of pursuing one (or of having one in the first place).

Another possibility is that someone in the group recognizes things in a way to benefit everyone involved, much like the development of John Nash’s gaming theory (the basis for the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”). The concern is not for the betterment, enrichment or even recognition of the leader, rather for the achievement of group goals, including the entire organization.

The Level 5 Leader

When we find this leader of the latter sort, John Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls them “Level 5” leaders. They are the ones who are passionate about achievement of the whole, not of themselves individually. These leaders aren’t lauded, because they don’t blow their own horns. They are too busy working toward meaningful goals to be distracted by something so counter-productive. Yet they do some particular things that we can see “proof” of their leadership. Some of those things are where I’d like to focus this discussion.

Leaders who are passionate about their vision (they ALWAYS have a vision), are careful to make sure everyone in the organization knows what that vision is. They will indoctrinate everyone so that it is not simply a vision, but a tangible part of the environment, so much so that it will go home with their people at night. Everything that flows then reflects that vision, because the vision becomes the beacon that guides the actions of everyone in the organization.

Those leaders know their people well: their personalities, their histories, their passions. The leader knows them because of the leadership involved in attracting and retaining the right people to “get the job done.” They reach back to the theory of W. Edwards Deming, not necessarily for Statistical Process Control techniques (although they are valuable), but for Deming’s “14 Points,” one of which is to ensure adequate and continuous training. If the right people are in the job and given the right resources to get the job done, cheerleading is a waste of time, because these workers already get out of bed in the morning excited about going to work.

Motivation? It’s boiling inside each one of them, and they don’t need slogans or mantras, or group meetings to cheer about history, because the “self-actualized” person is also self-motivated. They know their jobs, they know what’s expected of them, and they know they have a responsibility to the rest of their colleagues to do the best job they possibly can. One reason that happens is that the individual is actively involved in developing their job and their responsibilities for that job, they are informed about how their job fits into the overall scheme, and they are intimately involved in changes that occur in the company. Revolutionary? No, it’s been in the books for decades.

When leaders develop people like this and the managers to supervise those people, it frees them up to do the visionary tasks: keeping the goal in sight, and making the course corrections necessary when changing conditions require them. Tweaking is a skill these leaders have that is not taught in any school, which makes it that much more valuable.

Leadership In Action

In my 10 year history as a coach, I’ve come across many managers with varying degrees of leadership ability. One outstanding one in particular comes to mind at a manufacturing firm. This division manager, let’s call him Jim, was a true visionary, who brought the division from a lackluster, poorly motivated, money losing operation to an energetic, proud organization that had attained ISO 9000 certification on its way to becoming profitable as well. Over those ten years, Jim steadfastly steered the division in the direction his vision so clearly defined. Not all of his actions were exactly right, but that didn’t keep everyone from learning from them. And the division became a model for the corporation, while the division manager became a regional manager, giving other divisions the benefits of his skills as well.

Jim had learned that putting the team together was his biggest job, but once completed, the team drove the progress. He simply got out of the way. He didn’t spend time showing what he’d done. Jim spent it providing the tools to the team members so they could get where he wanted faster. If he needed to do something that one of the team members should or could do, that team member was, by definition, unnecessary, and was eliminated. That doesn’t mean that mistakes weren’t tolerated, nor that effort wasn’t made to insure the team member was adequately placed and trained. But when it became obvious that change was necessary, it occurred quickly and cleanly. It was truly a joy to work there, but especially to observe that unsung leadership in action.

Steps to Developing Your Leadership

There are some things we as individuals can do, if we want to develop our own leadership:

  1. Keep focused on the primary goal of your company. Never let yourself be distracted from that.
  2. Surround yourself not with those who only agree with you, but with the right people for the job you need done, then train them and provide them the tools to do the job.
  3. Recognize the benefits of having distinct personalities and perspectives around you. Not only do separate skill sets come with different personalities and perspectives, but different approaches that are essential to your company’s success.
  4. Having hired the right people, get out of their way. If you must micromanage them, you don’t need them. This is not a big problem, however, since they won’t stay anyway, if you treat them with so little respect.
  5. Remember always to consult your feedback loop in all your processes, to make sure things are working as you expect, and that you can make appropriate changes timely. Failure to do this with hasten the failure of your organization in total. Recall that your feedback loop is only as valuable as the people from whom you get feedback. Listen to them.
  6. Know when you have exceeded your limitations, and acknowledge it. Then get help to overcome it.

Leadership is a learnable skill so each of us is capable of becoming a leader. We will only become effective leaders, however, when we lose our fear of making mistakes, and share responsibility for achievement of the goals of the organization. If those goals are our individual measures of achievement, then the organization will work to succeed and achieve; if they are not, we will be the transient leader that gets things going, but fails by failing to share credit and push for only the good of the organization.

Dare to achieve.

Are you doing all you can to tell your team that you appreciate the work they do? Learn more about how to work better with your team: https://thisisleadership.lornawestonsmyth.com/

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