Point of view #1: “Everybody can be a leader”. Not true. Everyone works with other people and is dependent on others to achieve results but not everyone is or has the capacity to be a leader.
Point of view #2: “Leadership is influence.” Not true. At some point, everyone influences others, either for good or bad. While all leadership involves influence, not all influence is leadership.
Point of view #3 “Managers are bad, leaders are good.” Not true. Management is needed for organizations to be successful. There are good and bad managers and good and bad leaders. While quality is needed in both areas, both roles are necessary.
Point of view #4: “We are running out of leadership talent.” Not true. We do not need a lot of leaders. We need a few good leaders in the right positions to build successful companies. Our problem is we often put people who should not be in leadership in those positions.
These points of view represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how organizations work, the roles of people within those organizations and what leadership is. These points of view create confusion and misunderstanding about leadership rather than clarity and focus. The damage these views create is that they diminish the importance of execution and results while overemphasizing the importance of people and soft skills.
As a result, the confusion about leaders and leadership has increased. We flail around trying to develop everyone into leaders while companies struggle due to mis-alignment and dis-jointed efforts. Unless several important principles are clearly understood, we will continue to be wrapped around the axel about the true nature of organizational leadership. When confused we may focus on great sounding ideas or concepts but they will be ones that do not address the core issues.
Principle # 1: There is only one “pure” leadership role needed in any organization.
In one of the earliest recorded instance of organizational levels, Moses is overwhelmed by the needs of the people of Israel and is literally killing himself trying to make all the decisions and handle all the problems as a leader. He is advised by his father in law, Jethro, (the first management consultant?) to appoint managers underneath him to assist with the various issues and needs. Moses places managers over groups of 1,000, 100, 50 and 10. (Exodus 18:25). In that way problems and issues can be dealt with close to the source and only the most complex or critical issues will make their way to him.
The Old Testament story of Moses illustrates a key leadership principle. What Moses does not do is allow these subordinate managers to go in their own direction. There is one leader and one direction and subordinates are to operate under the direction set by that leader for the nation of Israel. Similarly, organizations today have one mission, one direction and one set of values. Only one leader has the final authority to authorize the mission, values and direction of the organization. That person sits at the top of the organization. (Whether or not this person is the right person for that position is a critical but different issue.) This leader points the way and defines what success looks like. He or she blesses a strategic direction and pathway. This does not mean that top leader is an autocrat. The leader uses input, involvement and advice from many different sources to make his or her final decisions. Once direction is set the senior leader does not specify all resulting actions that must happen. True leadership and engagement means that others are empowered to develop specific plans and milestones to make that direction a reality.
The most senior leader is the one “pure” leader in the sense that he or she has no immediate execution responsibilities. (While the senior leader is responsible for all that is done beneath him or her, authority to execute is delegated.) An organization with multiple leaders moving in multiple different directions with varying values is a recipe for confusion and mediocrity.
We do not have a dearth of leadership talent because we do not need that many leaders. We need a few good leaders in the right positions. The problem is we are simply not very good at selecting true leaders for the highest senior level positions in organizations. This level requires leaders who have strategic and conceptual vision; leaders who can position the organization to be successful both in the present and the future; leaders who value the contributions and ideas of staff; leaders who inspire and motivate with what is possible; and, leaders who protect and strengthen the organization’s completive advantage and core competencies.
What happens when an organization selects the wrong top person?
- The organization places a “cap” on itself so that it will never be able to achieve its true and full potential.
- Lower level managers begin to fill the leadership vacuum for their units. This pulls the organization into multiple different and often contradictory directions.
- The organization sub-optimizes its resources (dollars and talent). This results in average or mediocre at best.
Beneath the senior leader are layers and layers of executors. (An organization needs many of these types of people as illustrated by the story of Moses above). Some of those executors have other people or teams of people reporting to them. We often call them managers. Every one of these executors is responsible for achieving operational results. While the mix of these responsibilities vary, these people are managers first and leaders second. As illustrated by the chart below, the percentage of leadership responsibilities diminish and execution responsibilities increase as one moves further down the organization.
99.9% of all executors must be able to work with and through people. As a result, each one has a people (leadership) component to their jobs that requires that they clarify goals, structure work and activity, motivate, communicate, encourage and give constructive feedback. Leadership is not their full time job but practicing sound leadership principles is essential to their success in producing results. This is how and where future leaders develop people skills. They learn to multiple their own efforts by working with and through teams of people to achieve more than the person ever could have alone. They learn to collaborate with other parts of the organization to build cross-functional solutions to meet differing objectives and needs. This is why organizations must watch to see who integrates both execution and people skills and capabilities to achieve significant results. Executors who can engage the hearts and minds of others (both individuals and groups) begin to emerge and these people are worth their weight in gold. It is these results oriented executors who simultaneously produce results while involving others in those efforts that must be groomed for higher-level responsibilities.
If executors are not leaders, then what are they? They are recommenders; problem solvers and influencers but they are primarily implementers. First and foremost they are accountable for results but they are also accountable for howthose results are obtained. It is the demonstration and application of these key skills that qualify people for broader and deeper responsibility and authority.
Every person in an organization has the responsibility to work with and through people. Every staff member has some people responsibilities but for the great majority of people in an organization, their major responsibility, obligation and contribution is execution. For a good illustration of this relationship of leadership and execution consider a football team. The head coach sets the direction and strategy for the season and the game; the offensive and defensive coordinators create a game plan to carry out the strategy; and, lower level coaches prepare players to perform their specific game time assignments. All have people responsibilities but all must execute.
Principle #3: The Key To Success is Executor Alignment
What is the implication of the “one pure leadership role” in an organization? Alignment! Lower level executors do not create new missions or values or strategies. They do not move in a variety of different directions. They operate under the umbrella created by the senior leader. They reinforce the established direction. It is within the parameters set at the top that subordinate managers plan an aligned course, set subordinate goals and execute activities to achieve the ultimate mission. This does not limit people’s creativity but instead focuses it on how to achieve the top-level goals and targets of the organization. The executor defines and implements high value activity while avoiding or minimizing low value. The executor models and teaches the values of the organization and demonstrates how to apply those values at the level they exist and with the customers that are served. Most importantly, these executors must be skilled at aligning efforts to the specified direction, delivering results, and engaging and working with and through people. It is only through alignment of the entire organization to the direction established at the top of the organization that real high achieving organizations are built.
Principle #4: If people want to develop leadership capability, they must first master their jobs, the business, and their ability to produce results in unique situations.
There is a heavy emphasis today on leaders and leadership development. In some ways, a person is diminished if they are not viewed as having leadership potential. Before a person can be a leader they first must demonstrate the ability to influence others and that requires credibility. For most people that credibility stems from their skill and capability in performing their work. It requires deep knowledge about how to do the work, how to meet and exceed customer expectations and wants. It requires the ability to uniquely apply the way work is done to different different situations in order to achieve results. It requires the willingness to help others learn and grow as effective executors. This is the fertile ground out of which leaders grow and develop. Leaders do not appear from a vacuum or even from marinating in leadership classes. They grow out of from credibility built on excellent and skillful craftsmanship.
So what does an organization need to be successful? One strong senior leader who has a strong focus on high productivity integrated with a strong focus on involving and engaging people. This leader must be coupled with multiple strong executors who model the senior leaders focus on people as they drive for results aligned to a clear mission and direction. And if you don’t believe that is accurate look at any top achieving military unit and you will find that precise combination.
It is critical that we appreciate the importance of the senior leadership position and the relationship of executors to that position.. Furthermore, it is critical that we understand that alignment between the one critical leader and a multitude of executors who believe in and want to see that direction achieved is the key to producing outstanding results.
There are two critical dimensions that need to be discussed more fully.
- The first is the exploration of the sources of credibility and where leaders earn the right to begin their journey as leaders.
- Secondly, there is one skill that is critical for all executors. This skill provides the ability to build and practice critical people skills and demonstrate one’s capability to work with others to achieve results.
Doug Wilson Chief Solution Design Officer at 9By9Solutions - Results Oriented Consultant, Leadership Mentor, Keynote Speaker
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