I hate management texts on leadership.

It’s a topic that seems so nebulous and abstract: one more piece of fuzz in a grab bag of HR fluff (along with ‘culture’ and ‘teamwork’.)

Yet we all know good leadership when we see it. There’s a quantum difference in the experience of being part of a well-led team and a poorly led one: the effects are easy to see and known by many. Most of us can point to a period in our working lives when we had a ‘good boss’ and the working environment was productive, good-humoured and we grew in our work. Happy days.

But the ‘shadow stories’ of poor leadership are far more abundant than the positive ones. And I don’t only mean the overt cases of abusive or aggressive bosses, but also those of ineffective, disengaged or simply indecisive ones.

Add to that the fact that for any organisational initiative to gain traction there must be a consistent set of messages, profile and sanctioning from the top and you see that leadership is as unavoidable as it is difficult to define.

So I come to the topic reluctantly.

Leadership: The Foundation for Performance
Working life is about generating a transformation. We take inputs (generally people) and use their skills to produce some kind of effect, whether that be the production of a piece of industrial machinery, a day of respite for a carer, a signed-off government policy, or a completed audit.

The point is: there’s some kind of result.

The leader is the scene-setter for this process of transformation; she sets the arena within which this result occurs.

The leader defines and drives performance and results, and sponsors the celebration if and when they are accomplished (and the post-mortem if they’re not).

Leadership is the ‘soil’ in which specific change and performance improvement initiatives are sown, nurtured and take root.

The leader builds a fully-functioning team around her, plays to their strengths and hence brings out the best in them.

The leader resists the constant urge to fixate on the inside of the organisation and redirects the organisation’s attention to get a clear take on what’s happening externally.

Since staff look to the leader and take their cues from her, she is the one who models the values and behaviours at the heart of the organisation.

The leader is the one who oversees the crystallisation of the organisation’s priorities, and how the organisation deploys to address them.

To borrow a phrase from Michael Gerber, the leader works on the organisation rather than in it.

Leadership is the precondition without which results cannot be sustained. It’s the intangible factor enabling tangible results.

That’s my list. A quick check of the literature (particularly the seminal work on institutional leadership done by Selznick in the mid 1950s) would see ‘the embodiment of purpose into systems and structures’, ‘the defense of the organisation’s integrity’ and ‘the ordering of internal conflict’ added.

Cradling Change & Improvement
The success of any initiative invariably relies on its take-up by staff or stakeholders. The lack of senior management commitment (ie. leadership) has been repeatedly identified as the single most important factor explaining the failure of organisational change initiatives.

Without a clearly stated direction that is consistently and vocally supported from the top, credible processes for deployment, incentives to participate (and consequences for non-participation), and the courage to make decisions and drive them forward, any improvement will be short-lived. This will be the case whether the initiative is a process streamlining or restructure. There may be a spike, but it will relapse to the levels seen prior to the initiative: a return to ‘room temperature’ performance. The only noticeable change will be an increase in staff cynicism.

I saw this for myself in an organisation which had two non-cooperating performance improvement fiefdoms, because two Directors each wanted their own improvement unit and the organisation couldn’t make a call on where one such unit should reside. So they had two. You can imagine how much programmed performance improvement there was in that organisation…

Developing the Ability to Lead
With so much being demanded of leaders it’s not surprising that good leadership is so hard to find. What can you do to improve your ability to lead?

Any leader (even a poor one) typically has a handful of strengths. This is the starting point for developing leadership capability – understanding your strengths, and building on them in a way that meshes with the needs of the organisation. So, start from where you are. Undertaking a personal SWOT analysis, and inventories of your interpersonal values, needs and style are useful starting points.

Holding a strategic planning process (along the lines I wrote about a couple of months ago) is both a sign of leadership, and something which assists with it (a virtuous circle if there was ever one). Clarifying organisational priorities and goals will make you a more effective leader, and ideally, give staff clear guidance so they can lead and manage themselves. This ‘distributed leadership’ extends the reach of management to a greater distance, and in my view is a sign of true leadership.

One thing we know about leadership is that it is not one style, but the ability to draw on a range of styles as circumstances dictate. It’s about adaptability, rather than conforming to a particular type. Coaching and feedback can be useful here.

And therein lies a clue as to why so much of the leadership literature seems abstract and uncompelling: because it tries to apply generic descriptions to something which is inherently unique to a particular situation.

Which leads to the $64 million question: how well are the myriad requirements of a leader manifesting in your particular situation?

With best regards,
Michael Carman
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

© Michael Carman 2014