The thing is … we often say things we don’t mean. Worse, we sometimes say things we mean, but don’t know how to follow through. And when it comes to leadership, do we mean what we say? Say what we mean? Do what we mean?
How do we even learn what we need to know? We’re busy running businesses! That’s what my managers are for!
There is a lot of talk of leadership development. Classes, seminars, webinars. The topic continues to be on the upswing. In particular, an increasing concentration on leadership culture is growing in popularity. To me, this is important. Leadership is not a singular subject. The noun may be, but as I’m about to point out, the verb form is not.
The truth is – there are a LOT of tools and resources to describe leadership – but very few that explain HOW to lead with confidence in your own context.
What is Leadership?
Our mutual friend, Mr. Google, defines Leadership as the action of leading a group of people or an organization, the state or position of being a leader, or the leaders of an organization, country, etc.
Thanks to thousands of brilliant authors on the subject, the actual number of definitions probably boggles the mind.
My challenge is that most of them sound like the definition of management.
The answer (to me) is this: leadership is …
the ability to utilize one’s influence to bring about positive, needed change. But how does this work? How do we do this? You see, it isn’t as simple mastering a single skill, it’s about fully understanding all the components – and how they fit together – that makes someone strong in their leadership.
Leadership is a Discipline
Smart organizations are recognizing that instead of reconfiguring past management techniques to bring about the change they seek (typically this is growth, but not always), the true pathway is embracing the development of an entrenched self-replicating leadership culture.
Every leader wants to be great at leadership, but sometimes we just aren’t. At least not all the time.
One reason for this is that leadership is something extremely few people are ever taught. Think back to school, college, graduate school, medical school, law school, business school, or the school of hard knocks, whichever combination applies to you. Did you take math? History? English? Sure you did. What about management? Maybe. But leadership? An actual class, or better yet, a course of study ON leadership?
I doubt it, at least not in formal university classes. This is beginning to change, thankfully. I recently served on the National Advisory Board for Wartburg College’s (my undergraduate alma mater) Institute for Leadership Education. Yes, they have a leadership department. That’s pretty cool. In fact, a surprising number of graduates are leaving with full-on leadership minors. This is tremendous! But it’s definitely the minority. Kudos to Dr. Bill Withers and Dr. Fred Waldstein.
What have you been taught about leadership? If you’re like us, you love leadership books, and there are many (and thankfully it is a growing library). And leadership conferences, too. But I bet most of what you know about leadership, you’ve learned on the job. Nothing organized – purely gut instinct, situational.
If I prepared a “test” about leadership, how would you do?
- What comes to mind first? Strategy?
- How do you get people to line up behind your strategy?
- What do people say about your strategy? Do they know what it is? Do they know where they fit into it?
- What are the key components to leadership for your organization? Do they all revolve around typical management metrics retrofitted into leadership-speak?
- How do you measure success in leadership?
- Is having a clear strategy the key to good leadership?
As you can see, I’m raising more questions than giving answers. I don’t mean to, but it’s pretty simple to do. Leadership is a complex theory.
Fact vs Theory
We asked leaders all over the country the following question: “What is the most significant leadership challenge you are facing right now?”
Here’s what we expected:
Here were the actual survey results:
At first glance, the differences do not appear to be too significant. But here’s why they are:
Our bias is that leadership is the ability to bring about necessary, positive change. We see EVERY ACTION as effecting change in some form. So if this were true, we believe change would be the most significant concern over other issues.
The reality, however, is that most people do not view change as their primary concern, because they perceive themselves (and/or their organization) AS flexible, they already adapt well to change.
The results of our survey disclose these very important facts:
- Financial constraints affect everyone, everywhere. This levels the playing field and organizations learn to adapt, and in fact are reluctant to pin their challenges on this issue.
- Change is misunderstood. It is viewed as something people “deal with” – in a reactive manner. Or, they view it as a strength because they’re adept at coping with it.
- Having access to Quality People seemed to be the default “problem” in each scenario from our survey. How leaders deal with the people in their organization, however, truly determines their perception of the “Most Significant” leadership challenge. For example, the healthiest organizations did not rank this as the most significant leadership challenge – yet they did identify it as a substantial constraint to growth.
What to do
Nearly every management theory in the world supports the notion that having Quality People on the team is most important. And, almost every organization claims to value its people more than anything, even more than their clients if they’re truly honest.
BUT: Here’s what our survey disclosed to us: while mostly no one ‘blames’ their people, they identify the lack of quality people as their number one leadership challenge.
If this is true, and since we only surveyed leaders, where does the real problem lie?
The solution, from our point of view, is simple. It is NOT easy, but it IS simple. Invest in developing a (healthy) leadership culture that replicates itself. What does this mean? Simply put, when you emphasize an organizational value centered on the importance of developing leaders – who in turn develop other leaders – your culture will begin to shift.
You will begin, slowly, to see other issues arise as the number one leadership challenge.
- Add a value. Our experience shows that healthy organizations – those in which leadership culture is highly valued – grow significantly faster and consistently, over sustained periods. They outpace the growth of organizations who possess significantly more fiscal resources, as well.
- Invest differently in your people. Continue to invest in their skills – if they are practitioners of any kind, continue to support the furthering of their skills. But also invest in their leadership skills and in how they develop and apply those leadership skills in others around them.
- Modify the metrics. Instead of solely counting outputs, measure outcomes. It is critical for any organization to measure ROI (return on investment). But what if you measure the ROLD? Return on Leadership Development? It is important to know how many purple widgets I make in a day. But what about also counting how many leaders I am investing in? How many are each of them investing in? When your people are measured on their success in investing in others’ leadership skills (in addition to your traditional metrics), you will notice a decline in the ‘people are my problem’ statistic.
There is a great deal of discussion about distributed leadership, organizational culture and leadership behavior. Probably more than you may have ever heard about before. We view this very positively, but we caution the adoption of these terms into your organization’s vernacular unless you are sure of what they mean in your context, and also sure that they will stick with you for the long-haul. Don’t grab the lingo without first internalizing the behavior.
If you are curious about how to more effectively grow the leadership quotient in your organization, we encourage you to get in touch with us today.
Tell us what you think
What has been your experience with the “people problem” in your setting? What’s missing from our theory? I look forward to your feedback regarding leadership replication and how it applies to your setting.