Exchanging emails with professor David Hurst of Regina’s Graduate School of Business (after my review of his new book a few posts back), we agreed that experienced leaders such as those in his EMBA program generally know what effective leadership looks like and therefore think our struggle to describe it better is ‘obvious.’ That got me thinking about why it’s so hard to simplify what leaders need to know and do to be effective when we all have this sense that’s it’s actually something we all know.
Anyone who’s worked on a team that really took flight knows the startling surge of power to succeed that occurs. It is a quantum level different from day to day teams we are so often stuck with. It seems rare and a bit hard to define, but we know the feeling of being part of something special, of getting results three to 10 times a great as any of us expected, of achieving those BHAG or Big Hairy Audacious Goals we are told to set for ourselves.
What we recognize are the components. Everyone seems to simply strive for the core goal. They put aside a lot of individual greed for fame, recognition, financial gain or whatever direct personal rewards temporarily because they believe everyone will benefit hugely if the core goal is achieved or, as more often happens, far exceeded – the rising tide that lifts all boats, or in this case, all careers. Many team members work amazingly hard whenever they see the need, far beyond the call of ordinary duty and quite often well beyond 9 to 5 limits. Each takes leadership in some area that contributes to the whole.
What’s obvious, too, is that we need more of this in our organizations, as much as we can create and that such teams have overall leaders, even though at various times it’s likely many of the team members step into a lead role in one aspect or another – ‘the best team is 1000 leaders’ (but only if they can all be well led as a cooperating group).
Of course this all happens only if someone or some small group coordinates it. A single leader or relatively small leadership team must work constantly to promote collaboration, to engage each team member and keep each aware of the benefits to them personally of working this way together. They have to be part of it themselves. If they are seen to be aiming at big rewards for themselves and not participating in the team’s work, the lack of ‘walk the talk’ is fatal. This is a constantly renewing requirement. Without this continuing engagement effort aimed at each and every team member individually, individuals soon start wandering from the main purpose, stop sharing information and assisting each other with the core goal in mind and instead turn to a pattern of trying to maximize results for themselves, in silos.
Most team members won’t see their wandering from the team goals that way. They will simply feel disengaged because others aren’t sharing with them, aren’t recognizing them as a valued part of things and so forth. Most don’t turn to what we might see as ‘selfish’ behavior without first trying cooperation and finding it not reciprocated. When some other team member gets extra rewards as inevitably happens (a vacancy gets someone promoted, with higher pay, etc.) everyone evaluates whether this is ‘fair’ when the entire team has all been striving together. If the leadership isn’t right on the spot to remind each team member their turn will come and why they should participate, things can fairly quickly degrade into chaos as the common objective no longer seems like the best for everyone. Anyone who can’t be convinced has to leave, gently or otherwise, again a constantly moving target.
All this suggests that the most important role of the leader or leaders is to keep everyone engaged through continual effort. I’ve known plenty of CEOs who work incredibly hard, long hours. Yet few seem to put the energy into continually gaining re-commitment from each team member or encouraging all leaders in the organization to do the same and constantly promote collaboration.
Instead of using this engagement role as their core activity and using such interactions with others to learn facts, encourage innovative thinking and generally stay on top of what’s happening, most of those appointed to leadership seem to come at their job from the opposite direction. They strive to gather all the facts, to evaluate what needs to be done and formulate their own ideas into orders, strategies and programs that they then command others to follow in practice. We allow this naïve concept of leaders telling ‘followers’ what to do to take precedence over the idea of a super-leader coordinating the work of ‘1000 leaders’ – a team of self-starting individuals. Without coordination a team can deteriorate into the proverbial group that’s ‘like herding cats.’ It’s on the way to happening the moment a leader doesn’t take this role seriously.
The problem is I used to sit in innumerable SVP meetings that added not a shred of value. They looked almost exactly the same as meetings of an engaged team on its way to achieving spectacular results. In neither were the results to come certain. In both people struggled with problems of the day. The difference was strictly in the underlying dynamic.
In poor teams individuals reported how well their divisions were functioning in faint hope of inspiring support and cooperation. In strong teams individuals truly discussed what was working or wasn’t and worked on problems together, sometimes with great frustration, lack of solutions, distress at what wasn’t happening, but always with more eagerness to hear each other and far less fear of laying out their challenges in gory detail.
Insecurity versus security, silos versus openness, lack of challenging versus constructive confrontation, all transpiring in one of two ways – under the watchful eyes of ‘a boss’ who will be dishing out rewards and either telling us what we each should do, which VP has to cooperate with the one chosen as lead today… OR ‘the participant’ who encourages and channels vigorous debate and asks great questions – the difference between a leader who makes a decision and one who coordinates a decision.
It should be easy to see which type of leadership is more effective. Why many still don’t is a puzzle.