Lead As If You’d Be the First to Follow, And Don’t Expect To Be Followed Unless You’re Ready To Lead

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It’s much more difficult to be a leader than to be a follower; yet many these days expect to be in a ‘leadership’ role without, actually, having a clue on how difficult and complex true leadership is.

Leadership is about inspiration, identification, belief, example and legacy. Leadership is about skills that many of us have, yet we seldom put to use. Leadership is about trust, emotion, empathy, respect, engagement, empowerment, listening and relating to others.

Leadership is about leading by example – if a leader does not believe in what he/she does nor does he/she have the best interests of his/her people and organisation at heart, that leader would never be a true leader.

There have been plenty of discussions, talks, books, articles and interviews in the last 20 years on leadership. What is interesting though, is that we cannot seem to establish consensus about what good leadership is all about.

Behind the concept of leadership, there is a sort of mythology that a leader is someone with charisma, that a leader is someone who has particular traits or a particular personality type – really?

A leader in any organisation is someone who can get things done. Not simply someone who dreams or aspires to rule the world, but someone who can actually contribute, deliver and do!

Being able to negotiate a coalition around your ideas, being able to move people along, being able to think tactically and strategically whilst sustaining support, that is what true leadership is all about.

Moreover, leadership is directly related to:

  • understanding the others’ agendas as well as you understand your own;
  • knowing what drives you and how you can translate that drive into a motivation for others;
  • understanding that the industry you work in is global and inclusive of many cultures, nationalities and religions and, in order for you to lead, you must respect other people’s values;
  • understanding the psychological traits you must possess in order to succeed;
  • knowing what to watch closely and when to intervene;
  • understanding how you can engage people from top to bottom and left to right;
  • having a successor in place and someone who can follow in your footsteps – someone who learnt from your successes and understood your mistakes.

Successful leadership in any organisation requires a combination of strategy and tactics.

The most effective leaders are constantly and effectively communicating the purpose of their agenda, the purpose of forming a coalition while, at the same time, are doing all the necessary blocking and tackling.

These leaders are working simultaneously on two levels: they keep the goals and the vision in front of their people whilst, on the other hand, they constantly deal with the issue of resources, capacity and coordination.

Building a coalition and fostering its smooth interaction is paramount for anyone’s success as a leader – you need your people’s input, your superiors’ input and the acceptance / understanding of third parties.

The public support of your leadership gives you legitimacy – no leader has ever survived without it.

It is rather easy to be a successful leader if you know how to create a shared sense of purpose. You’ll never get consensus on everything – that’s impossible. But the key here is for you to know where the overlap and the disagreement are.

If you manage to create a shared sense of purpose around specific issues and agendas, then you will also be able to accept that everyone has his/her own individual interest to work around it.

Understanding the others’ motivation is truly important. See the issue with their eyes and communicate with them. Listening to the purposes of others is absolutely critical to anyone in a leadership position and there is never such thing as “over-communicating”.

Many leaders believe that momentum is simply an ability to keep busy and to keep progressing towards one’s goals. That is a one-dimensional concept that is either “on” or “off”. And such a postulate couldn’t be further from the truth.

Through extensive empirical research, it has been found that the leadership momentum is driven by four sources: structure, performance, culture and political dynamics.

Managerially competent leaders understand these very well: structure equals availability of resources, performance equals achievement, evaluation and feedback, culture equals socio-psychological mechanisms like peer-pressure whilst political dynamics equals conflict mitigation by either elimination or inclusion.

A directive leadership approach is a hands-on approach through control-defining what needs to be done, allocating resources, setting clear expectations and establishing the metrics for success or failure.

A facilitative leadership approach creates a sense of community and a sense of autonomy – it is based on your ability to get people involved and to move the members of your group to go one step beyond. It draws on the self-motivation and knowledge of your people.

Managerially competent leaders choose the approach that best maps the situation they face.

The most effective leaders will demonstrate a range from highly directive to highly facilitative approaches. Your challenge is to know which way to lean and when to do it.

Sometimes projects just fall apart – especially in our industry – because no one is quite sure who is in charge. Other times, one person is in charge but he/she never seems to be able to take a decision. Yet, other times, there are too many chiefs and every decision becomes a turf battle.

Your decision about how you want to control a project becomes critical. You have to decide how much emphasis you want to put on hierarchical structure and how much emphasis you want to put on team structure.

The strength of an hierarchical structure is that it maximizes control. That might mean limiting the number of people who have decision making responsibility or reducing the number of work streams. It works well only when you simply need to execute. You are trying to get the project moving by placing an emphasis on predictability, consistency and accountability.

Meanwhile, a team structure values sharing ideas, working collaboratively and developing its own sense of momentum. The team-driven leaders believe that the key to sustaining momentum is the power of the people not the power of the hierarchy.

Each structural approach has its own limitations – if you rely too much on vertical hierarchical structures, you’ll find yourself trapped in bureaucratic inertia. If you rely too much on horizontal team structures, you’ll soon be caught up in the quagmire of turf battles. Your managerial competence will be tested by your capacity to balance this range of options.

In a stable, non-turbulent, economically-predictable universe it’s prudent to establish and create jobs with a task orientation. That’s when we know what’s going to happen, when we know what the environment is going to be like, when we know how the markets are going to react to what we do for our clients.

But what happens in the reality we live in and in the critical situations the industry was faced with in the last years? What happens when what you wanted your people to do yesterday is no longer applicable today?What happens when the uncertainty dominates and you no longer know what’s going to happen next? Then do you take a task-oriented approach or do you revert to a sort of a more autonomous, more problem-solving orientation?

How do you maintain your position as a leader when things get really rough and uncertain?

You have to look at what you intend your people to accomplish before you decide how much autonomy versus how much routinisation you allow. How much of a task orientation you want to take versus how much of a problem-solving orientation you want to foster.

There are two types of information you can gather: the bottom-line measures, such as productivity or quality, or the process information. The problem is that this data is, at its best, subjective. It’s never quite clear what the bottom line is in many industries, not just ours, and it’s never quite clear how the processes should be implemented.

If you are a true leader, specifying the performance criteria to your team is crucial.

There are many measures of outputs and processes, and any measure of progress is, at best, a moving target. What you consider to be appropriate criteria, someone else may view them as inappropriate. Moreover, today’s criteria may not be applicable tomorrow.

Since leadership is about leading and getting the best out of your people, you must be aware that subjective or not, stable or not, you have an obligation to be clear about how projects and people will be evaluated. If you fail to do this, you can no longer assume that your people view you as their leader – you will simply be their manager or, simply said, “boss”.

You may think it would be easy to decide how you want to evaluate the progress. But nothing about leading and managing is more complex than this.

Since a leadership position is a constantly moving “job description”, one of the most essential things is to be able to make evaluations – the most difficult one is to know what to evaluate. You need to understand – and make it clear to your staff, too – that processes are all about how things get done and how people carry out their work. The output, on the other hand, is the bottom-line measure that indicates either the success or the failure.

How do you find the right balance between making adjustments and maintaining a sense of continuity? A proactive leader has to consider many issues when the time calls for changing processes.

When making adjustments, it is critical to be empathetic. You need to view the adjustment from the perspective of others and you need to understand their interests, their orientation, their fears and anxiety.

What is most important is that you also view yourself from the perspective of others.

When you give feedback as a mentor, rather than simply as a supervisor, you move along towards using feedback as a developmental rather than a performance evaluation technique. Such a facilitative mentoring relationship takes time and, if you don’t put the parameters on it, it can become an unproductive series of meetings.

Having such a relationship for the purposes of feedback may be facilitative but it does not necessarily allow for rapid adjustments.

Making adjustments is not dependant just on the information you gather but, also, on the nuances and subtleties you project in giving feedback to the others. It’s very simple to assume that you have communicated clearly. More often than not, this assumption is far from the truth. What may be crystal clear to you, may be muddled to someone else.

Comments you view as constructive, others may perceive as hostile. What you may view as an essential truth, others may see as an obfuscation of reality. Your capacity to communicate clearly is essential.

Leadership never ends. It’s a constant work in progress. Leadership requires not only a 360 degrees awareness of who and what is around you, their motivations and their positions on the chess board but, first of all, it requires a very good awareness of self.

Without understanding your limitations, weaknesses, emotions, bias and reactions, you can hardly assume you know others’. If you want to be a leader or in a ‘leadership’ position, you’re embarking on the most difficult professional journey of your life.

If you want to be a boss, you don’t need to do anything special – just shout now and again; that will remind people you exist.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

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