Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.
Last time out, we discussed the challenge of leadership based on people’s understanding of the term and the assumption that everybody has the same meaning that they attribute to leadership, whilst knowing that that isn’t the case and the confusion that can ensue from that. I
In this episode, I’d like to share with you a way of looking at leadership as a form of contribution that is different from the conventional way that leadership is looked upon as something or somebody that is at the top of a hierarchy at the very pinnacle of the pyramid.
This was a structure inherited from the industrial age, which has lasted for about 200 years but was really outmoded. And based itself on the only organizational structures available or at hand at the time, which were the church and the military.
If you think about leadership, instead of it being a position and a hierarchy, as being a form of contribution, I’m going to endeavour to explain what the other forms of contribution are that are necessary for an enterprise and what leadership is and how it differentiates itself from the other forms of contribution.
It’s a bit like if you have a stool with four legs on it. It’s far more stable than if you’ve only got three legs that are working. And it’s less likely to fall over. So, from stools to ladders. I’d like you to think about, or imagine, the leadership contribution as being one of the rungs of a ladder. And there are four rungs on the ladder.
The first of which is the contribution of “doing”. So, nothing gets done unless you have doers to do the doing. When I talk about doing, every organization has its doers. You’ve got coders who code. You need somebody to sell a product. You need the doer who gives the tax advice. Somebody who produces the reports. Somebody who builds the website. Somebody who manufactures the widget or the commodity. Somebody who writes the content. Without doers, nothing gets done.
Once you’ve done and get good at “doing” very often, you move to the second level of contribution. And the second rung of the ladder is “experting”. So if you do something for a period of time, you get very good at it. You get technically skilled, you understand the ins and outs of it, and you become a form of go-to person for everybody else.
You become a bit of a mentor. You become an advisor. You’re able to help people who otherwise are struggling with the “doing”. One of the challenges of leadership is that leaders often spend a significant amount of time “experting”. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s necessary from time to time, the mistake becomes when leaders or people in the position of leadership mistake or equate “experting” with leading.
And often, it’s a location or an area of comfort for people. So they like to indulge themselves by spending time “experting” and it’s very good for their self-esteem. And mistaking this for leadership is something that lots of leaders and managers that I’ve come across are guilty of.
The third rung on the ladder is “managing”. So once you get very good at “experting”, very often what happens in organizations is they say, “Oh, you’re so good at this. We’re going to turn you into a manager”. This is a point of inflection where you’ve now moved from gaining your value and getting your results from individual contributor to being responsible for managing and guiding others.
And it’s at this point in the inflection that organizations typically make, often very fatal, mistakes that have long-term consequences. They assume that because somebody is a fantastic tax advisor that somehow they’re miraculously going to be great at the skill of managing other people or doing the things that managers need to do.
This was something I discovered very early in my own career when, in the late 1980s, I was working for an American organization who sold and distributed cars to the American military that were stationed overseas. I started off selling, and I became very, very good at selling. So, very often, I was somebody who was the go-to person who was sought out for advice by other sales agents. And then, one day, the company came and said, Ian, we’d like to make you a manager.
I was flattered. And I said, well, what does that involve? They said, well, it involves a new corner office. Well, I said, that sounds good. What else? They said, well, you get a company car with an expense account. I said, that sounds good. Uh, anything else? Well, there’s a territory to manage, with some sales agents in it. Well, I didn’t really hear that part, but I did think, well, how difficult can that be?
So, without any training or any advice, I signed up as manager, and I spent one day a week in each location with the sales agents that were in my territory. Every day, I went to a sales agent’s territory. Their sales went up. And then, I moved on to the next sales agent, and sales went up. But by the end of the month or, the second month, or the third month, I was becoming frustrated. I was becoming exhausted. And my regional manager was becoming very disappointed by the results that were coming from my region.
Sound familiar? This is something that typically leads to what the Peter Principle describes as being promoted to the level of your own incompetence. One of the things that we see very frequently out there in organizations is, at a very senior level, we find that some of the basic management capabilities and skills were never installed. And this has really proven to be very difficult and challenging for the manager in question or the manager involved.
So, different from “experting”, what managing involves is it involves planning. It involves setting goals and targets. It involves managing workflows, scheduling, creating deadlines, holding people to account, reviewing, and proceeding. This is the management contribution.
So then, what is the leadership contribution? The best definition of the contribution of leadership, as I’m defining it here in my experience, comes from Charles Handy. In his quote, he describes, “The leader is someone who shapes and shares a vision that gives point to the work of others”. And there were a couple of different elements to this quote, which play into the definition of the leadership contribution.
The first is the leader’s responsibility and contribution is to set the direction. It’s to set the destination for the enterprise. Because if they’re not doing it, then who is? To do that involves consistently and constantly scanning the landscape for changes, trends, opportunities, and threats and adopting a much wider view than is necessary for any of the other elements or contributions. Peter Drucker defined and differentiated this leadership from management by describing leadership as those who do the right things. Whilst management is more about doing things right.
Imagine a scene where you have a team of foresters, and they’re operating in a forest. The managers set the schedules, set the targets, review progress, set standards, and ensure productivity is maintained. The leadership role is completely different. It’s just to define and ascertain that we’re in the right forest. And think sometimes of the practical resistance that happens when the leader emerges and declares that we’re in the wrong forest, only for the rest of the team to resist and say, “Well, we’re making great time”.
This is one of the other elements that is part of leadership, which makes it challenging. There’s no point in shaping a vision if you’re unable to share that vision in a way that brings people on board. After all, as we described in previous episodes, a leader is only a leader if there are followers. Effective leadership is ensuring that you are onboard and can connect with followers in ways that inspire them, motivate them and energize them to follow you as a leader.
In that regard, the leadership contribution is often something that goes undetected and can be seen as invisible. I can remember, in a previous incarnation, remonstrating with a COO in an enterprise I was involved in. And the COO, in a 5% moment during a heated discussion, said, “But, to me, you don’t do anything”. And actually, there’s real truth in that. So when I got over the personal offense that I might’ve taken about “not doing anything”, I reflected and thought, well, actually that is the lot of the leader very often, is that it isn’t about doing, that’s just a different contribution.
The challenge is, like a good referee, often the best leaders are the ones that are most invisible.
Like the orchestra leader, who apparently does nothing, it is their contribution to ensure that all of the other parts of the enterprise play in harmony.
Until next time, stay safe. Stay sane. Stay connected.