Friday 4 October 2013

Leader? Me? You must be joking!

One of the most frequent requests I get for coaching is to work with people newly-promoted to a leadership role.
And once they are comfortable, with me and the process, they often express some reservation about their suitability or competence for the role.
If incredulity is your response to the idea of being a leader, it may be a very natural one.  It may also be mistaken.
Many people shy away from the notion of being a leader because they have in their minds someone who:
  • Is very charismatic
  • Is very authoritative (or even authoritarian)
  • Can rouse people to action by fine or fiery words
  • Knows all the answers

...and so on.

In fact, the notion of such hero-leaders is not upheld by the research, and is going out of fashion in organisations.  Instead, many are recognising that the true role of the workplace leader is to enable the people who actually do the work to deliver.

This helps us to recognise that other approaches to leadership may be equally - or even more - effective.

Some of the key requirements of leadership, then, are to ensure that the team is effective in planning, doing and reviewing the work.  That does not mean the leader has to do all of the planning, and still less all the doing.  But he or she has to make sure that those three things happen effectively and that the team has what it needs to do them.  Those needs may include clarity of purpose and direction, sufficient resources, whether of time, training, staff, or kit, good quality feedback on their performance  (including praise for work well done) and so on.

Again the leader may not provide all of those: he or she may simply prompt the team to sort some of them out for themselves; or remind others in the organisation of these needs and get them met that way (eg the need for positive feedback).

So the role of the leader may be most helpfully seen as providing the necessary support for the team to deliver.

Which is why I like the idea of an organisational hierarchy as an inverted pyramid, with those who deliver services at the top, and those who immediately support them next highest, with  the Chief Exec tasked with supporting the whole edifice!

I am also very interested in the role of emergent leaders.  I use this to describe those who, without a formal leadership role, step up and take a lead on a specific issue when the need arises.

It may be the team member who spots a problem, such as a safety hazard, and resolves it; or one who sees an opportunity, and grasps it.  I have seen numerous examples of both of these: and indeed one of my current projects is working with the head of a large organisation to develop the culture within which this will happen more frequently.

So another role of the leader, in my thinking, is to encourage, enable and support such acts of agency by individuals.

And finally, because I still hold to my heretical view that people are more important than organisations, I believe a leader should ensure that work is a positive experience for those he or she leads: not necessarily enjoyable all the time (though that would be good) but ultimately rewarding: allowing people to grow, to use their gifts and talents, and to accomplish something of worth and significance.

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