Leadership will be the vital ingredient in the change that lies ahead for many of our great institutions – e.g. education, health, social housing. With luck the right leaders will be there when it matters, however the creation of leaders within our organisations is something that often appears to be left to chance. We put effort into building management skills, developing management teams, exploring an individual’s management potential, but we focus less upon leadership, due perhaps to a belief that a good manager is, by definition, capable of being a good leader.
A view widely expressed is that organisations need leaders and managers, the first to rally people around a common vision, the latter to be the systematic implementers of process, procedures and management principles. That might be the view at the top of an organisation. But for those amongst the grass roots the distinction doesn’t matter much. Those, such as Nurses, Housing Officers, Academics who are faced with change in how they must behave and in what they do, when there is huge uncertainty about jobs, urgently need support, guidance and inspiration. That is down to leadership, not just from the people at the top, but from people all around them and throughout the organisation.
But organisations seem to be in a muddle about leadership. Some jobs have the word leader in the title, but team leaders often report to Managers who report in turn to Directors. So leadership does not appear to be that important. Appraisal systems sometimes attempt to measure leadership practice and capability as an indicator of promotion potential. But we then often send those promoted on management development courses.
When fundamental change is needed that has to strike at the heart of the culture in an organisation, as well as alter its structures and systems, leadership is needed from a great many people. Yes, Directors, Managers and Team Leaders all have to step up to the plate but so do co-workers in teams who have to support each other when grappling with new ways of working.
Thankfully, everybody possesses leadership attributes to some degree. Nevertheless (appraisals aside), we do little to identify, recognise and encourage those leadership attributes. And we provide people with precious few opportunities to practice using them. What practice does take place often happens somewhere else other than work, where people have a passion for a hobby or something that they don’t associate with actually being at work.
A former colleague was a senior officer in the St John’s Ambulance service. She confessed that, to do her day job during the week, it helped to “leave her brain at the door”. But on duty at the weekend with the St John’s Ambulance service a natural leader would emerge directing the efforts of others in exposed and stressful situations.
So, how do we leave the presence of leadership less to chance? It must start with a compelling vision from the top but visions are sometimes difficult to believe in when the real motivation for change is obviously about costs and survival. A visionary CEO, Vice Chancellor etc, can articulate a need to move the organisation to a different place but just because it ticks the boxes at board level doesn’t mean that everyone shares the same passion, vision or desire to make it happen.
The end game is only possible if the leader at the top can bring out leadership behaviour in others and not just those with the title manager or leader. This takes a very clear understanding of the personal attributes that make a good leader and real effort to ensure that they are projected consistently, through behaviours, within every piece of communication, at every meeting, within every conversation. Those attributes then become reflected back in the behaviour of others, who in turn display them with the same level of effort and consistency as the person at the top. The age old debate is around whether they can be taught or not.
What are these attributes? In my experience they comprise the following:
- Credibility – the person articulating the vision must have the experience, knowledge and respect from others to be believed;
- Authenticity and the ability to communicate well at a number of different levels – non-verbally as well as verbally;
- Compassion – which may not be needed all the time, but must be demonstrated quickly and with sincerity at appropriate moments;
- Consistency – in actions, words and in terms of expectations of others;
- Focus which can be maintained upon a few important things;
- Energy in spades – to maintain a pace within a change programme, for example, that is sufficient to convey its importance and sense of priority;
- An ability to manage the performance of others through rewarding high performance and confronting unacceptable performance.
Many people will have experience of attending briefings from Managers about a change programme and what needs to be done differently. A high proportion fail. Interest is limited, the message fails to make an impact and life continues as if nothing had happened – there is failure to engage. But some do succeed. The person presenting holds the interest of those present, uses a language which taps into the passions of others, some of whom speak up in support influencing positively the views of others. This is one leader bringing out leadership behaviour in others, and this is because that person has already demonstrated some, or all, of the attributes above, and continues to do so on the day. But this isn’t about leaders and followers. Structurally we are all followers to some degree, but I don’t want to be a sheep and neither, I suspect, do you.
I want to be a leader in my own right, leading towards the things that I passionately believe in. So, for me the greatest attribute of a successful leader is not, as is so often cited, to develop followers. It is the ability to instil in others a combined passion that they can individually and collectively work towards. It is the creation of co-leaders. Granted, you are never going to win over everyone, every time, but if you start with the concept of winning a majority the rest may be persuaded and carried along by the critical mass. And this is done by creating the conditions and climate for honest conversation and through modelling the desired behaviours.
But what of those Managers who we see struggling to make an impact? Are they occupying posts for which they are not qualified? Not necessarily. That person may be an excellent process manager, recruited to the position because of their technical experience and skill. After all, for many organisations, business as usual (if there is such a state) is one of on-going transition as systems and structures evolve and management skills are vital. But, when significant change is demanded, we must be careful not to put people into exposed leadership positions for which they are ill suited. Not only does this jeopardise the change process but it might put that person under unbearable strain.
Two things are needed to bring about positive, lasting change.
Firstly, the change initiative should be driven at varying levels by people with obvious and proven leadership ability. And secondly, our technical managers should not be side-lined into a technical backwater and labelled as unsuitable for a leadership role. With training and development, the creation of the right environment, and authentic leadership, their own leadership behaviours can be encouraged to emerge along with their technical skills – as long as we tap in to their own personal passion for delivery.
A simple exercise will convince the hardiest of doubters. Take a cross section of people from across an organisation and ask each individual to describe a point in time when he or she was performing at their best and to describe the environment within which this happened.
There is always great consistency across the responses. Typically, the task was a clear, time limited project, they were able to influence how it would be achieved, they had the necessary skills, they were trusted to get on with it, and there was pressure to deliver. But most importantly, although they weren’t aware of it at the time, the previously described leadership attributes were on display in abundance by their project leader.
So, the message for organisations is clear. Everyone, even those who profess to leaving their brains at the door in the morning, have the potential for leadership. To deliver real leadership however we need everyone to keep their brain in place. The role of the leader is to bring the leadership attributes out in others, and to create an environment where people can perform at their best. Organisations that can get these two things right will be able to make their vision a reality and are unlikely to look back.
Who are these leaders? Yes, it’s the person at the top, but it is also you and me. We are not sheep.
About the Author: Ian Plover is a Director of Develin Consulting and a specialist in change leadership. He has previously been Director of Human Resources for Anglian Water and the Director of Business Change for AWG Plc. Ian has since served in a change leadership role in multiple organisations in the public and private sector, both in the UK and abroad. His current role is Pro Vice Chancellor and Director of Faculty at Buckinghamshire New University.
Ian can be contacted at email@example.com