What if the answer was neither? Much has been written about leadership, but in my opinion not much of it is helpful. The literature seems to be divided between the views that there are certain personal traits which make a good leader, or that events caused a mere mortal to step up and exhibit some superhuman leadership skills. The problem is that there is no evidence that a leader’s personal traits make much difference to the performance of an organization.
Likewise there are no real clues in business books about what skills leaders should learn, other than the obvious: some financial acumen and market knowledge that might make a business perform better. My view is that great leaders are neither born nor made but that they are able to give up their old beliefs and develop new thinking and behaviour that ultimately sets them apart.
As a young manager I was taught that leaders demonstrated energy, intelligence, they were hard working, displayed good interpersonal habits and were as - if not more - technically competent than their team. And in terms of skills I was taught how to coach, counsel, read a budget, present well, communicate concisely, and set big goals. I believed so much in this manifesto that I worked in the evenings as a trainer teaching those skills.
One night a delegate on a course approached me and asked a question, “if what you are teaching is so effective, then why has nothing changed for me, other than I have a bit better relationship with my team?” I had no answer for him, except the glib reply that things take time to change. He left the course, and I was left looking for answers. I had three questions.
1. What do good leaders achieve?
2. What do good leaders do?
3. How do they do it?
Though it’s taken me twelve years I now think I have some answers.
To the first question, I think the answer is obvious. Good leaders help to improve the performance of their organization. And by performance I mean better service to the market, good use of capital employed, they design work so that people learn are happy and committed and they are able to see what’s happening in markets and translate this into how operations effectiveness.
In his book, Strategy Safari, management thinker Henry Mintzberg described the role of the leader as someone who understands what matters to customers and makes sure that the organization is capable of delivering it.
Unfortunately many of the leaders I have observed over the years don’t do what Henry says they should. Many of them are more interested in serving themselves, manipulating the numbers, and avoiding the truth about how the organization is really performing. Do you think I’m being unfair? Please let me know what you think.
So assuming that we agree on what leaders achieve, the next question is what do they do to achieve it? Here I think the answer lies in how they think. That ultimately drives what they do.
The idea of leadership in an organizational sense came at the start of the industrial revolution. Bethlehem Steel and Ford being two of the organizations that formalized the concept of leadership. Leadership at that time was seen as top down; leaders got their knowledge about the work from reports. Leaders tended to make decisions about how work was done; and to make the work easier for what tended to be immigrant workers, the work was functionally designed. Measurement was about adherence to budgets. And the core belief that, as most workers were lazy and only motivated by money, then the job of the leader was to motivate the workers.
This knowledge about how to run an organisation worked for a while. It worked as long as customers took what they got, there was a shortage of jobs and a lack of competition. But the cracks in the thinking started to show after the war when Toyota, a sewing machine company, used what seemed like little resources to steal much of the share of the car market in the US.
What Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota production system, realized was that when you think differently about running an organization, you get dramatic results. Because he had little money he had to make cars at the rate of market demand, make workers multi-skilled, have managers solve problems on the line and have the workers involved in the decision making. What he found when he did this was that costs fell, he could respond to the market faster and by the end of the late 1990s Toyota was making more money than all the other car companies put together.
But in the West we continued to stagnate. Still managing by the use of budgets, functionalizing the work, assuming that people needed to be motivated and management staying out of the work meant that our private sector became less competitive and our public sector a money consuming monster.
Being a good leader requires that you think differently about the design and management of work. What that means you should do is understand then take action on improving the system, use measures that help you understand and improve the work, design work so that workers have variety and are challenged and spend time in the work improving it.
Which leaves our final question how do you do it?
- First is to be clear on the perspective from which you view the organsiation, i.e. rather than top down you must be able to see the system from the outside in, the way that a customer does. This means setting your purpose, what you do and how you do it, in customer terms.
- Second is to establish measures of capability related to your purpose.
- Third, once you are honest about how the organization performs, you spend time in the work studying process and finding out why the work is dysfunctional.
- Fourth, you examine the policies that have caused the poor design and management of the work.
- And fifth, you find out and change the thinking that lead to the badly designed policies in the first place.
But, if I’m being realistic, only a few will ever make remarkable leaders, because being remarkable requires that you unlearn the teachings of the past one hundred years. This means making an absolute commitment to being obsessed with customer needs, be honest about how you really perform, spend time out of your office, and be willing to change the very policies that you yourself might have put in place.
It all depends on whether you want to be remarkable or ordinary. For those of you that want to be extraordinary start by finding out how many of the following you can answer yes to:
1. My staff and I are clear on who we are trying to serve
2. We have clarity of purpose in customer terms
3. We have measures of capability related to purpose
4. I spend time in the work solving problems
5. I constantly review and change policy to better serve customer
6. I am aware of how all managers think about how to best design and manage work
So in conclusion, I think that leaders are neither born nor made, but that they are those unique individuals that are able to let go of what they have been taught and follow a different path. In that sense leaders are people that can unlearn what they know and then do the exact opposite to their peers. Maybe if I had done that twelve years ago I would have been a better leader. What about you?
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