Leaders With Ideas Do Get Work Done

Author: Bernard Clarke @berneeclarke

I listened to a business owner speak today and he said his competitive advantage is his staff team. It is 'easy' to say you want to invest in your people to make your business to be successful; it is surprising how hard some find this to do in reality, yet nurturing leadership in your business does not have to mean management is poor.

It is not leadership or management that achieves results, they work best together

“Fantastic!” he said. “Let’s book a date to start!” he exclaimed. “It’s just what our managers need!” he declared.

He was a CEO and he became a client and we’d just pitched to him and won a contract to deliver leadership training to a group of his managers. We were happy – our hard work, enthusiasm and experience had won us the work - and the new client was happy.

As the CEO, he'd wanted his middle managers to extend their skill set and lead their departments more effectively. He'd loved our pitch, especially our style of testing assumptions and asking direct questions about his motives for the training and success measures. This CEO knew their business had to change quickly and radically to survive in a market place that was evolving so fast their services were being devalued by their customers’ access to new technology.

All looked rosy and ready to transform the style of management in the business. What happened a couple of months later at our next meeting with the CEO was interesting…

“From the reports I’m getting the course is going really well,” he said. “The group really enjoys your team’s style of training,” he shared with hesitancy. “There’s just one thing…” he added before a pause and then share his real perspective, “these managers you’re training are starting to have ideas. And I just want them to do their job!”

Leadership sounds exciting; developing leaders is something most organisations agree is a good thing as a way of enhancing the skills, abilities and performance of managers. (I know I’m biased because of our work); it’s a good thing to encourage in all many and varied its forms.

However, those who instigate leadership development need to be aware of the consequences. The inspired, spirited and enthused manager who then tries to put their leadership into practice might just start having ‘ideas’, as the CEO above put it. They might start taking the initiative and asking questions. Even more daringly they might begin to make time to THINK about the work at hand and invest time in developing new ways of working.

I applaud those who invest in the skills, abilities and knowledge of others in their business. Keep doing it and you will reap the rewards. However, senior people need to consider the consequences and be ready for them, for instance:

  1. Are you ready for some staff to leave? Not everyone is made to – nor should – stay in their role and work for just one employer. Sometimes training can enable a person to make a positive move. This can be good for the individual and great for the business, but only if their line manager is ready to embrace the opportunity and discuss openly the needs of all parties.
  2. Their work patterns might change – maybe the leader will sit less at their desk than a manager would have; they might start attending different conferences or networking in a new way. This disruption of work patterns can be a good thing, habits can create fixed mind-sets, attitudes and therefore behaviours. Such change can actually be good for productivity; creativity is an amazing driving force for business innovation.
  3. Will your view of leadership have to change? Maybe you might even need to learn to ‘move out of the way’ more often and let the 'new' leaders with ideas flourish around you? Your style of leading may have to evolve and adapt to be right for your changing business. For incatnce, you may need to tell people what to do less and ask what they think more.

If a CEO wants managers to do ‘as they are told’ then leadership development is not the answer. Successful senior business leaders can cope with change, new ideas and others who think differently. The modern environment companies operate it requires new insights, spotting gaps, reviewing perspectives and innovating – of finding the competitive edge that keeps a business productive and profitable.

Ralph Nader’s often cited quote, sums the positive dilemma a senior leader can find themselves in:

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”

So, what do you want in your business? Compliant followers who fulfil instruction and manage the workforce? Or an engaged staff team who know how to manage AND lead others?

There are a wide range definitions of management and leadership, which have been covered many times over in other professional writings. One description I like to use is that ‘managers can make a journey possible (even enjoyable sometimes!) but it is leaders who identify the route the journey will take’. Organisations may need appropriate coordination, processes and systems to prevent abuse of power or privilege but this does not mean stifling new ideas. It means senior leaders need to be smart in creating frameworks to nurture talent and the attributes these developing leaders need to move forward.

So, my advice to business owners wanting their managers to lead - please do so but only do so if you’ve thought through the impact of success and you are ready to be changed too!