It has become fashionable to talk about leaders in organisations rather than managers, and to suggest that everyone can be a leader, so it is not limited to the senior management. Yet the distinction between a leader and a manager is rarely made explicit, and those who are called the leaders still tend to be valued for their management skills rather than leadership skills.
Nonetheless, we at Meta believe that the ideal organisation will only come into reality when there is excellent leadership as well as excellent management. The excellent manager will ensure that everything runs as smoothly as possible, and people perform well. The excellent leader sets a vision and direction to the organisation that gives dynamism and growth, to the individual involved and the organisation as a whole. The manager maintains the status quo well, the leader brings continuous development and enhanced possibilities.
The manager controls. The leader inspires. One is not better than the other. It is not a question of either/or. Both are necessary for a sustainably successful organisation.
What is an excellent leader like?
When we research the descriptions of excellent leaders, there are some clear groups of characteristics that all will have in common.
- 1. Being a visionary
The excellent leader has a vision of how the organisation could be, and uses that vision to give a direction and motivation to the staff. Their vision is not just about achieving excellent results, it also covers how people will be, ideally as they go about their work, and how the work environment will be, to encourage them to perform at their best.
In defining the vision, the excellent leader also helps people to understand how they can get there. He/She suggests the possible approaches to turning the vision into reality, and is explicit about the parameters they will need to work within. These are guidelines rather than rules, giving the staff freedom to develop without fear of overstretching the line.
The key to a great vision, however, is that it comes across as genuinely desired by the leader. He/She needs to be clearly personally committed to both the vision , and to staying with the company to work towards the vision. For example, many organisations have been through the phase of wanting to be “world class“. Most leaders I have heard state this don’t sound as if they mean it, or have even thought through what it means in their business – they just say it because that’s the vision, and it feels like an excuse to beat up on those who aren’t performing perfectly yet again.
I do remember one particular leader stating this vision and catching his whole team in. He actually said: “Our vision as a company is to be world class, and I reckon that in our area we can set the example for what that means. Being world class here isn’t just about processes, productivity and quality. It’s also about a great spirit in the workplace. So let’s work out how we can build on what we have and become the first to prove it’s possible.” His enthusiasm, his commitment, shone through him, and his team could see that he really believed it was possible.
- 2. Personal qualities
“This above all, to thine own self be true” Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
One of the reasons that excellent leaders are distinctive is that they have in common a high level of authenticity. This means that they are true to themselves, and play straight with others. Their uniqueness as a human being shows all the time, and they do not hide their individuality behind a cloak of conformity. This is why some excellent leaders may be charismatic, some may be quiet, unassuming characters, some may be quite bullish in achieving what they want, and some may work quietly away behind the scenes. What they all do is use their personal strengths well, and come across as real human beings who have feelings, who sometimes make mistakes, who have a sense of humour and perspective.
This level of authenticity also gives people a sense of power from within, so that they don’t need to exert power over others to prove themselves. They are comfortable with themselves, and this allows them to give credit to others, and encourage others to be the best they can be.
3. Emotional intelligence
The words emotional intelligence were bandied about quite a lot a few years ago, and the phrase captures a quality that we all recognise. It is firstly the ability to manage yourself and your emotions well, so that you keep perspective and can deal with the ups and downs of life with resilience, and have a generally positive attitude towards life. This means that they demonstrate the qualities that allow us to be successful in our lives and set the example. It also makes it possible for them to show the second strand of emotion intelligence; the ability to “read” others and respond to them in a way that brings out their best
- 4. Working with a team
It is in the area of working with others that 21st century leaders differ from the role models of the past. The models held up tended to be military – yes, inspiring and courageous, but very much the leader out on his own. Today’s excellent leaders regard their teams as a vital part of their leadership, and recognise that it is their ability to enable and empower others that elicits success.
This means that they elicit, encourage and draw on the strengths of a team of people, bringing them together to work towards a shared vision. They acknowledge and respond to others’ ideas, they support the growth and development of their team, and they see their role as making it easy for others to give of their best.
- 5. Thinking systemically
The excellent leader is not totally caught up in the everyday. He/she takes the time to maintain what we at Meta call treble vision:
- Current reality and awareness of what is happening now, throughout the business, which allows them to spot the potential problems before they grow into crises, and to be aware of the potential knock on effect of any change.
- Mid term future: the ability to recognise what is achievable towards the vision, and keep the momentum going. They also keep the system relatively balanced, by ensuring that the developments undertaken are not just weighed in one aspect of the organisation.
- Long term future: ensuring that whatever is developed is contributing towards the vision in some way, and maintaining that vision as the context.
This way of thinking is very different from the thinking driven by a mixture of crises and shareholder profits, and is often difficult to maintain.
- 6. A change agent
Being a visionary means that the leader wants change. However, it is also necessary to be a change agent, i.e. to know how to make change happen, rather than just have a wish list. Change agents know how to:
- motivate others to engage fully with change
- encourage others to be innovative
- involve others fully in all aspects of making change happen.
They also recognise that change is about a way of thinking, not an occasional flurry of activity. They encourage both development and innovation. They recognise that experimentation doesn’t always work, but can always lead to learning, and they make learning central to their own and others’ view of what is happening.
The major characteristics listed above create a picture of someone we would all love to work with, the ideal leader. Yet this is not our usual experience of being led. Why not?
The inhibitors to excellent leadership
- A. In the individual
We have been generally conditioned to believe that we have to prove ourselves and demonstrate that we are successful to the world at large. Our education and upbringing teach us to be individualistic, conformist and competitive. We are taught to try to be “the winner” yet in an acceptable way.
This inhibits us in our role as a leader, at an unconscious level. We use our own bosses as role models, even though they didn’t demonstrate the qualities we would prefer, because we assume they succeeded because of how they were behaving, and we also want to succeed.
- We are sometimes reluctant to share the glory, because then we will not look like the winner. And we may therefore be reluctant to run with the ideas of others, or use their strengths.
- We can avoid taking risks, because we want our success to be seen as acceptable.
- We fear that treating others well, and supporting and encouraging them may lead to them exploiting us, and seeing us as weak.
- B. In the team
Not only do we have this conditioning to inhibit our practice, so do most people around us. This means that they may push us into their stereotype of the leader, rather than their ideal, because that is what they expect.
- They may demand answers and decisions rather than help in working something out.
- They may bring the responsibility back to you, and play the blame game with you and with other colleagues.
- They may be suspicious when you arte being supportive and encouraging, expecting that you will somehow exploit them if they accept your approach.
- They may look for evidence of your weakness or failings rather than notice your support of them.
- And some will take advantage and go off in directions you would prefer them not to.
- C. In the larger context
There are also external inhibitors which can make it difficult to put excellent leadership into practice.
- The company culture and history. Every organisation that pre-existed your leadership has its own identity. And people expect it to be maintained. If yours is a history of conformity, control, bosses, then you are working against the norm, and there are pressures from everyone to stay with the original story.
- The expectations of your bosses. For most of us, there is someone above us in the hierarchy, our line managers, the owner, the executive board, the shareholders. If they have a narrower, shorter term view of what success is in the organisation, then we are obliged to fulfil these expectations, and may find that either this takes all our time and energy, or that anything more is unacceptable.
- The cultural expectations. We live in a world where short-term financial viability is king. Whether it be shareholders, the stock market, the banks. Or the government agencies, they all work on the basis of assessing our current situation, not our longer-term potential. Because we need to stay profitable and/or financially secure, we may be forced to take steps that short-term improve the situation, but longer-term slow us down. We are unlikely to be praised for our excellent work with people, even though this is what will lead to the sustainability of our organisation.
With all these inhibitors, the wonder is that leaders do nonetheless demonstrate some of the characteristics of excellence!