Mainly because a great many among us continue to misunderstand the far reaching implications of effective leadership, I find myself amazed at the number of middle and senior level managers who are dying and desperate for results and through poor planning and time management, find themselves too busy to lead. That leadership is one of the most valuable assets any manager could bring to the table would seem lost on a mentality that looks upon leadership as little more than a word and with the enthusiasm that most of us reserve for a dental appointment or a colonoscopy.
The obvious and immediate human concerns that would arise out of this reluctance to engage and challenge staff members aside, the very real business impact is tangible and decidedly negative. If you can imagine a boat in the middle of a stormy ocean without a compass, you can visualize a business or organization lost, floundering and at risk of disaster. Leadership is the compass for any business or organization and as such provides direction toward that safe port in a storm or, more hopefully, allows us to plot a course toward strength and prosperity.
I have worked for more than one organization that goes to great lengths to engage senior managers in all aspects of the business, which should be a great thing but when hours and days are taken up with meetings and the preparation of reports and discussions of strategy, forecasting and results, there is no time left to engage staff members, check progress or verify the great and wonderful things we had thought were being done were actually taking place and more importantly, there is no time to lead.
Human beings are highly complex creatures, who at their best can astound you with their initiative and ingenuity but at their worst can thwart your best intentions and frustrate you with their failings and unpredictability. They are just very needy as compared to a printer or a web site and this in particular if you are not there to lead them.
A former client of mine, not one I would describe as entirely successful, once described leadership to me as his creating a new policy and his posting it on the wall. As far as he was concerned the very second he tacked a policy on the wall, his job was done and it was up to his staff members to follow the policy or get out. I would tell you that over time an awful lot of his staff members chose to get out and when I suggested to this business owner that his approach might be the problem, he told me that to him it was obvious that he had hired the wrong people and he just needed better people. He maintained that attitude until the day he sold the business, never once entertaining the idea that it was his lack of leadership that kept his policies from being fully implemented and his unwillingness to engage his people that led to constant turmoil and staffing turnover. People need to know what is expected of them, they need to know that their efforts matter and they need to be encouraged along the way. In short, people need to be led.
Organizationally the greatest threat to effective leadership is too many senior level meetings, discussions, demonstrations, brainstorming sessions and policy round tables. It doesn’t matter the quality and urgency of these events, if they are consistently pulling managers away from their teams and consistently creating a separation between the task at hand, the team members and the leader, they are a detriment to the tasks we are performing and a threat to the success of the organization.
Standards should never be arbitrary, quality and excellence never just happen and productivity is much more than the perfect process. Leadership and the oversight it provides assures our standards are met, verifies the quality and guarantees our process. If our leadership is buried in meeting on top of meeting, our leadership is absent and unable to deliver the excellence we had expected and had been looking for. Leadership is that critical ingredient in moving us from good to great. If it a choice between meetings and success, fewer but better meetings might be the more prudent choice.
Leadership is a very intimate interaction between us as leaders and our staff, giving us the opportunity to reinforce the many good things we are doing toward accomplishing our goals but also giving us the opportunity for mid-course corrections toward that same end. Plans and projects rarely go entirely as conceived and an important aspect of leadership lies in our taking counsel and adjusting the things we are doing to assure success and our hitting our goal. In the same way, the meetings, discussions, brainstorming sessions and round table discussions are designed to review progress and communicate where we are to our various stakeholders but when this gets in the way of effective leadership, we have to make a choice between talking about what and how we are doing something and actually leading us toward doing something and accomplishing something. Without the leadership, accomplishment becomes a less likely outcome of our efforts, no matter how good the plan or process, no matter how good our staff. Visible leadership is that important.
Action in the absence of leadership may or may not be supportive of our organizational goals but more often than not, it occurs out of confusion over what is or is not expected and ignorance about what we are trying to accomplish. It cannot rightly be called initiative or going above and beyond what was expected because the leadership has not been around to set those expectations. In too many of these cases we have no idea of what is wanted or where we are going. Too often it is a sign of a motivated staff, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Quality leadership would provide that direction and move us toward accomplishment.
In the end leadership is not about the perfect plan or process. It is not about the latest analysis or the most up to date intelligence. It is taking the people assigned to you, letting them know what is expected and when and letting them know what success looks like. It doesn’t matter that you accomplish this in a huddle around the coffee maker in your office or in a teleconference covering three time zones and two territories but you need to connect, you need to expect and you need to inspire.
As Colin Powell said “Leadership is solving problems. The day your people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”.
Not being there is a great way to show that you don’t care and an ever better way to lose your people’s confidence. Maybe we should have a meeting to discuss all of this. Or maybe not…
Leadership is about accomplishment and being there for your staff. It’s not about meeting, it’s about leading!
About the author:
Brian Canning is a regular contributor to weLEAD and a business analyst working in the federal sector. For the past thirty years he has worked in the automotive repair industry, most recently as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Training Institute in Savage, Maryland. After serving as a tank commander with the 1st Armored Division in Europe, he started his career as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington D.C., moving on to oversee several stores and later a sales region. He also has been a retail sales manager for a large auto parts distributor, run a large fleet operation and headed a large multi-state sales territory for an independent manufacturer of auto parts. His passions are history, leadership and writing.
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