Are the best leaders charismatic, extrovert and seen to be leading?
In my experience most people expect something dynamic in a leader. They look for an extrovert, outgoing and obvious person in charge. And sometimes this kind of biased way of looking at leaders creates problems. Years ago a friend of mine was promoted to be the first woman bank manager in a leading clearing bank. One day a customer came in with a complaint and was being looked after by a competent, polite and helpful person but the customer was far from happy. Eventually his patience ran out and he demanded to speak to the manager. My (female remember) friend, in her role as manager was always willing to meet customers so she duly came to see if she could do anything more that has already being done. “I said get me the manager” (!) the customer shouted. She had to be very assertive and insistent before he would believe she was the manager of the bank.
Now, of course, we would all like to think this does not happen today and it is probably a lot less frequent but the underlying process still goes on. Do you look (behave) like a leader? Or perhaps the question should be “How can I behave in a way that will mean people see me as a leader?”
The start of my answer to this question appears later in this blog and the rest of it will appear in at least a further six articles to make sure I cover the current state-of-the-art in enough detail. For now I want to pursue the theme of perception and expectations. I know a Chief Executive of a company who sends out regular staff surveys part of which asks for the views of his staff on him as a leader. He was gutted recently to read that they did not see him as dynamic enough or as the leader responsible for their unique, caring and customer oriented style of working that also provides a great working climate. And I know they think it is a great place to work because they have told me so! The man in question is a quietly spoken, intelligent and reflective guy who spends much of his time leading but not in a loud, “here I am” kind of a way. In fact, when challenged about his achievements, he modestly says he doesn’t know how he has done it. He is, though faced with a dilemma of having to be different and “give it large” if he is to match the leadership perceptions of his people. Or maybe not? Perhaps changes in how other people assess leadership actions are needed.
Incidentally, advertisements for leadership jobs do nothing to help the situation. A job for a Finance Director recently was looking for “…a powerful advocate..”: British Transport Police want “…energy and enthusiasm..” and the Royal Opera House want someone to “…Demonstrate a genuine passion for…”. This last description is particularly interesting if we look at what is wanted from the standpoint of the observer – in this case the recruiter. If someone went to the opera regularly and was knowledgeable about the content of many operas would that do? Or would they just smile a lot and talk about how much they enjoyed the show? And how easily could passion be “faked”? Also within the Royal Opera House there will be many people who will have to “lead” in different parts of the business if it is to be successful. In that case I would be more inclined to want people to be passionate about leading and leadership: then it is more likely that the Royal Opera House’s desire to be “…a key contributor to the artistic wellbeing of the UK” is in safer hands than a ballet/opera enthusiast.
And this brings us neatly to a key reason for writing this piece about Leadership. In the early days I reckon around 1911, Taylor put forward his ideas about scientific management. In a nutshell he convinced many people that humans where just a cog in the production cycle and as such their input could be accurately measured and quantified to arrive at, what to me is the mystical figure of the average worker, doing an average job taking the normal amount of time. After that the leader had only to divide the amount of work to be done by the normal time it took to do and that determined how many people he (and it was almost entirely he) needed to do the work. This is probably a bit of an over simplification but I am sure you get the point. Taylor had nothing to say about motivation, working conditions, tiredness, illness or the effect on work output of a leader in that charismatic and extrovert sense with which I started this piece. I am not sure what he would make of the fast changing, flexible demands of today’s industrial and commercial world.
Since then I believe that we have spent most of our research, management learning and management of change actions to get back to seeing all working people (and I do mean all!) as human beings who bring their aspirations, family problems, personal goals and sociability to work. The phrase work/life balance brings to mind a bit of the problem: that way of putting it shows “life in general” as a separate set of stuff from work whereas my reality is that “life” means just that: what we do between birth and death. Admittedly work is a big part of that.
This then is the leadership challenge! How to make sure that the time people spend at work is satisfying, meets their goals as well as the goals of the business: and how the goals of the businesses that make up industry and commerce meet the needs of society at large. Thus we have leadership at many levels from the local team leader to the Prime Minister who “leads” the country.
Since 1911 and Taylor’s scientific approach we have seen many Leadership theories and best practice come and go. Naturally some have stood the test of time like John Adair and Action Centred Leadership that suggests leaders pay attention to three key areas – task needs, group needs and individual needs. Simply put Adair suggests that effective leaders pay attention to all three areas as they look after their teams although any one of the three can take priority focus at any time. More recently the sound thinking contained in Leadership on the Line (reviewed here) gained much praise in leadership circles in the UK and the US. Their research highlighted the key areas of focus for leaders based on the actions of top business leaders in the US that the authors have been in contact with through their work at Harvard University. Using metaphors for leader actions they emphasise things like “…show stakeholders a new future" that means “keeping the vision in mind”: orchestrate the changes by raising and lowering the “thermostat” and “…look out for danger signs like “personal attacks” and “marginalising".
If you look at my review here you will see how much I like their approach and in fact we run change management workshops based on the contents of the book. That said this approach is somewhat more suited to some companies than others and is still not close enough to the human centred approach to leadership we believe is essential for long lasting benefits. Thus we have continued to research the impact of leadership on people at work and are delighted to have found a whole series of projects looking at the impact of wellbeing on work performance that go to the heart of human centred leadership. Much research shows clear evidence that if leaders at all levels focus on lifting and maintaining feelings of wellbeing amongst their team members then much is to be gained in areas like higher productivity, closer engagement and lower staff turnover: even creativity and customer satisfaction are higher where wellbeing is at the centre of all leadership actions.
Research has shown that there are six key areas where leaders must focus their attention if wellbeing is to be maintained and, for some people, raised. Each of these six areas will be the subject of a future blog. By the end of the series you will see for yourself where the greatest impact can be had. The evidence about human centred leadership is impressive and clearly shows benefits to be gained so if you want to know more details now contact me here and I will send you some supporting information. Otherwise watch this space!
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