Given the extent of research into and writing about the practice of workplace leadership, it’s remarkable that so many organisations, groups and teams perform with no better than average efficiency and effectiveness.
Theorists disagree about causes and remedies but unite on the need to continue their research and publishing, adding to the plethora of conflicting approaches, mismatching “key principles” and “essential steps”. Alluring promises of breakthroughs abound but there’s much more theorising than on-the-ground progress.
The phenomenon invites the conclusion that it might be best to stop paying attention to this stuff. Confusion is just a book or a blog away. (Irony intended.)
Why do so many bestsellers and websites, each claiming their originality and authority, eventually seem like “chloroform in print”? How come so little of their advice translates into splendidly-led organisations?
Without doubt, many of these sources have helped and continue to help us understand more about human functioning, improve our efforts at collaboration and redress the harmful effects of traditional command-and-control models.
Through them, we have learned important things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. Many organisations and individuals have significantly improved their leadership as a result, and there are some striking examples of effectiveness.
But there remains great need for change: leadership practices often produce more struggling to survive than real thriving.
Who should we be reading, following or studying with? Do we need more qualifications? Or do we already know at some level, much of what is important and necessary, and that the search for the Grand Magic Answer is futile?
Do we sometimes find it convenient to keep telling ourselves there must be an easier way, instead of putting what we already know into practice – or finding support to do so?
My view (surprise!) is that many “new” approaches are simply a re-packaging, dressing-up or mystification of basics that leaders know they should practise but often avoid. Others distract from what’s necessary by focusing on and over-thinking sexy nice-to-haves while overlooking the less attractive fundamentals necessary for the herding-cats challenge of organising anything involving people.
The choice seems to be between earnest and thorough yet boring on the one hand, and exciting yet marginally relevant or ultimately irrelevant on the other. (There are exceptions, of course: see footnote.)
“Nobody can ever be completely ready to do anything . . . You need some level of knowledge to get started in any endeavour but you don’t need all the information about your industry to do something about your chosen life’s work . . .
“Many people are caught in the “knowledge trap” . . . The pursuit of more facts, information, skills, experience, education or practical understanding of a subject before taking action . . .
“Learning something new can actually be a waste of time if your goal is to make progress and not simply gain additional knowledge . . .
“We often hide behind knowledge acquisition and use learning as an excuse to delay the more important choice of actually doing something or getting our hands dirty. We should be spending our time actively practising.” [From The “Do Something” Mindset, by Thomas Oppong.]
Passive learning is not a form of practice because although you gain new knowledge, you are not discovering how to apply that knowledge. Active practice, meanwhile, is one of the greatest forms of learning because the mistakes you make while practicing reveal important insights. [James Clear]
This all may sound rather cynical or OTT. So enough already. Here’s my main point:
Ultimately we must decide for ourselves whether we will be swept up in the fads and rhetoric of the moment or recognise some basic commonsense principles of leadership and put them methodically into practice.
This may not be as simple as it sounds, because:
- We may have learned to be reliant on others to make important choices for us, and lost the ability to recognise and act on simple truths for ourselves.
- Because common sense is more widely available than common practice, and it may be hard to find role-models, coaches or mentors on whom to pattern our own behaviours.
- Basic principles can be hard to apply – especially when they involve going against the flow – and are therefore avoided.
- Simplicity is not the same as easy.
- Understanding ideas and applying sufficient grit to practise them until they pay off, are two different matters.
As scarce as truth is, the supply is always greater than the demand. [Josh Billings]
The appeal of those bleeding-edge bestsellers in the business section of airport bookstores may arise more from our learned helplessness, laziness about self-directed learning and the consequent distrust of our own instincts, than in their practical usefulness.
Although we could and should be, we are not always experts on ourselves and our own situations, skilled at learning the lessons available from personal experience.
Much about early education and socialisation processes causes incompetence and passivity in inner-directedness, self-monitoring and self-assessment. As a result, we become dependent on others’ judgements and rely on experts to show us shown the Right Way. Even when offered a useful principle or a concept with possibilities, we may have to ask, Yes, but how do you make it work?
Someone else’s sure-fire magic is more attractive, (particularly if it involves an easy read, an up-market presentation or out-of-town seminar), precisely because it promises to by-pass the hard work demanded by real progress: the challenge of changing our minds and our habits.
If and when we do allow ourselves to be overly-influenced by some new bandwagon, it’s easy to remain uncommitted at heart: we can blame the theorist or our adviser if it doesn’t work out.
So, here’s my theory
If we –
paid greater attention to our impact on other people and carefully monitored the influence of our role-modeling;
were more methodical about learning from everyday experience – ours and those of others around us;
were less improvisational about our leadership and management practices and applied even the first fundamental of a methodical approach (systematically plan, monitor and measure the impact of your plans and actions); or even if we
were less worried about being perfect leaders – we’d make greater progress towards leadership excellence.
Action isn’t something that comes after figuring things out. Action is a way of figuring things out. [Gregg Krech]
If all we did was study our own experience to learn from it, most of us would develop faster: everyday experience contains the seeds of wisdom, laws of action and principles of change. Unless we do, we miss the point and the meaning of it.
The secret is that there is no secret or magic. The rudiments of successful collaboration in organisations and enterprises have already been discovered and are still insufficiently applied by their leaders.
When they are methodically practised, those commonsense activities tend to improve the quality of leadership and management and therefore the results dependent on them. Further innovations may add benefits but only if the prerequisites are already in place.
Observations from the field
In my one-to-one work with leaders in their workplaces, I continue to see everyday evidence of the following:
Leadership practices are overly-focused on the organisation’s Primary Task and insufficiently on developing individual and collective capacity for the Primary Task:
Few leaders have and follow a well-planned, carefully-monitored plan for the development of their own leadership .
Existing leadership development plans are insufficiently monitored, refined and evaluated. Unbridgeable gaps form between the ideal and the reality.
Leaders often fail to closely measure the impact of their leadership through the eyes of the people they are paid to serve. (The results of annual engagement surveys, though useful, are too indirect, too late.)
Leaders don’t do what they say they’re going to do, so what they say and do is regarded with mistrust.
Although leaders believe their every-day interpersonal communication practices are fit for every purpose, they are often inadequate for demanding situations. All efforts to lead and involve others, eventually require us to manage inter-personal relationships. Best practices for this are most required when they are most difficult. At those times all we have available for skillful use are the behaviours we habituate every day.
You’ll find antidotes to these issues in The Seven Keys to Better Organisations from my forthcoming blockbuster, The Leadership We All Need – in your bookstore soon! (Just kidding.) Or you could get in touch for some leadership coaching support.
Footnote: I’m excited by the visionary “bossless leadership” work of people involved with Loomio and Enspiral. One of their founders, Allana Krause, has written a particularly thoughtful piece about leadership: see Beyond “Dreamers vs Doers” – Full Circle Leadership.