Leadership is Easy

Getting Beyond Leaders ... to Leadership

Leadership really is easy

All you have to do is..

  • Maintain a clear, compelling, and correct vision for the company
  • Ensure that the founders / investors / stakeholders outside the company are convinced it is the right vision for the company
  • Translate that vision into a strategic plan with enough openness so staff experts can add real value in fleshing out the operations required
  • Make sure every department, process, project, program, and person understands how they support that strategic plan
  • Along with providing that clear roadmap, maintain enough flexibility that you can nimbly react to a new technology, new competitor, new customer demand, or new economic shift
  • Respond directly only to those operational or tactical problems that threaten the achievement of the strategic plan ... and empower others to handle the rest
  • Make sure you have the right talent, properly aligned, strongly motivated, and adequately resourced to achieve the company’s vision
  • Hold together the senior team so they provide coherent leadership and model the company values

Other than that, leaders are pretty much free to spend their time as they wish.

Why CEO's Turnover So Fast

All sarcasm aside, there is a reason why CEO’s turn over so quickly. Few challenges are quite like that of leading a company. It isn’t that any of their tasks are inordinately hard, it’s that the volume, complexity, and uncertainty of the challenges they face are daunting, unrelenting, and unforgiving.

Years ago The Peter Principle predicted that good managers would eventually be promoted to their level of incompetence. And today, most senior managers are finding that level arrives much sooner than they ever imagined!

Senior managers, Directors, Division Heads, and CXOs often find that the demands they face in their new positions are not only more difficult, but different from what they anticipated as well. The skills and intuitions that served them well lower down in the organization suddenly emerge as weaknesses, blind spots, and biases. Leadership seems to be a “whole new ball game” rather than just playing harder or going extra innings.

The challenge we face is articulating exactly what leadership requires. It’s not industry knowledge or technical competence. It’s not marketing savvy or salesmanship. It’s not high finance. It’s not charisma or public presence. Those things are important, but they are also table stakes, that is, they are requirements to be in the game at all, but not enough to win the pot; if you (or your staff) cannot deliver these, don’t even bother wondering about the real nature of leadership.

The problem is to characterize the essential features of leadership. And it is actually pretty easy to do so. Really. No joke.

We Can't Learn about Leadership from Leaders

The stumbling block has been our unfortunate – but understandable – focus on the leader. We thought the answer to our query would be to reflect on proven leaders and extract the essential features of their behavior, values, thinking processes, or personal style. And the result has been a myriad of lists of stuff. The 8 qualities of leadership. The 7 habits of effective leaders. Or the 67 traits of good leaders.

The flaw is that someone reading one of these lists is left still wanting. Which traits are the most important? Which trait should I call on in a particular situation? And the lists are not consistent! The leader is supposed to be confident and humble. Challenging and supportive. Visionary and down-to-earth. Charismatic and sharing the stage. And how many of these traits can be acquired by an aspiring, up-and-coming leader? Where’s the course in charisma? How do you learn systems thinking?

The reason for this unsatisfying result is that we were thinking from the wrong direction. We asked what traits a leader should show and then presumed that an effective organization would be the inevitable result. But experience tells us that sometimes a proven leader is brought into a troubled company with disastrous results. There is such a strong disconnect that even good ideas fail to get traction.

What we should have asked is what traits characterize the well-led company, and then ask what would have to happen to ensure that outcome! The difference between the two approaches is surprising. So rather than characterize leaders by their evident traits, let’s work backwards from their hopeful consequence: the well-led company.

Working Backwards to Understand Leadership

Our hypothetical “well-led company” could be described in a variety of ways, but the following would seem essential qualities:

  • quickly identifies and addresses its critical challenges, both internal and external.
  • balances attention to long-term strategic options with attention to more immediate, tactical obstacles.
  • keeps the appropriate openness of boundaries, so that departments work together smoothly, and alliances with key players in their supply chain are reliable and resilient.
  • deftly applies its available talent and resources to address problems most efficiently.
  • explores the inherent dilemmas of business with innovation rather than rancor or excessive conflict.
  • exploits the value of both formal, mechanistic approaches and more organic, emergent approaches.
  • anticipates major shifts in its future environment and avoids over-adapting to the current situation if necessary.
  • maintains a rich dialogue between leader, manager, and staff that continuously contrasts goals against capabilities, leading to appropriate adjustments in both.

While such a company is most likely successful, the description above is more likely to provoke the response of “unrealistic” or “on this planet?”. It is certainly at odds with the more typical experience of companies being resistant to change, internally conflicted, vacillating back and forth between contrasting approaches, or so weak on strategy that the company is tossed about by market forces rather than being truly responsive to them.

If we can contain our skepticism, however, our hypothetical well-led company actually advances our understanding of leadership. It focuses our search on “What behaviors, beliefs, values, structures, and policies are needed to foster this kind of company?”. The answer defines the requirements of leadership, and it will go well beyond the traits of individuals.

Lesson #1: Well-Led organizations are organic

It should not surprise us, but leadership is not simply the properties of a person; the well-led organization will require the coordinated thought and action of leaders and followers. It will require a breadth of intimate knowledge that goes beyond the capability of any individual. It will require the ability to navigate contradictory demands, to live within multiple dilemmas. Only an organic entity would be capable of such complexity and elegance. The well-led organization is not built like a machine. It is not simply the extension of the leader’s will. The well-led organization has to leverage the inputs and wisdom of everyone, not just those with formal authority.

And from this perspective, we should take some lessons from systems theory and evolution about how to characterize leadership.

Lesson #2: Organic organizations are built from the bottom up

Like any complex system, our hypothetical company is emergent rather than directed. The well-led company cannot be commanded; it arises spontaneously from the actions of individuals. The organization is built upon – but greatly exceeds – the sum of its parts. These emergent properties cannot be predicted from the inputs, which is why so many organizational change efforts stumble; they try to control something that evaporates once you constrain it too heavily.

The lesson of emergence is that the macro-level properties of our ideal organization are not imposed directly, but emerge from the micro-level efforts of individuals; even though we are concerned with the larger system, the individual actor is the critical evolving entity. In organizations, it is the day-to-day activities of individuals that must be our focus of attention. The most powerful role of leadership is to shape the context and concepts within which individuals pursue their daily concerns. In other words, macro-level tools (visioning, policy, structure, rewards, etc.) should be used to reinforce desired micro-level processes. For example, visioning could be a tool for keep people engaged with the bigger picture rather allowing them to dive too deeply into tactical concerns.

And if we focus on the micro-level, day-to-day lives of people inside organizations, there are numerous themes we might highlight. We could focus on how people are building relationship, or creating meanings, or trying to add value in some work flow. The use of evolution as a guiding metaphor, however, suggests that we focus on something else:

Everyone is embroiled in a never-ending stream of identifying, exploring, and resolving problems.

Evolution of any kind emerges from the constant experiments of multiple players. Their attempts to improve their circumstances by overcoming unforeseen obstacles is the force for change, for improvement, and even for survival.

Most people report that they spend less than half their time executing procedures without thought; most of the time they are facing new challenges that range from the most mundane to the most profound. They struggle with what to do this year, and what to do this minute. As we move up the corporate ladder, the sense of constant problem solving gets even worse, although the range of challenges shifts. There are more challenges in working with people: delegating, coordinating, coaching, disciplining, and so on. There is the barrage of technical problems brought to managers for final approval, resource allocation changes, and more. And, of course, there are the problems unique to management: planning, budgeting, tracking, coaching, etc.

When we move into the executive ranks, the severity of the challenges increases yet again: alliances with other companies, acquisitions, investor relations, long-term strategic issues, securing key talent, plus the unending flow of internal problems that find their way to the executive ranks because of their scope or level of conflict.

The constant in all this activity is the pressure to correctly understand and resolve challenging situations. In a sense, problem solving emerges as the most important business process! And it also leads to our next lesson.

Lesson #3: Organic organizations are adaptive

Organic leaders understand that they cannot simply make things happen by executive dictate. Less experienced leaders have watched in frustration as countless statements, policies, and demands dissipate like water poured on hot sand. The well-led organization has a leader more adept at indirection than direction. They create the necessary conditions for a well-led company and then “let it happen” organically. They know when to take “stage center” and when to get out of the way.

Although more naive leaders focus on providing macro-level direction, the organic leader sees the micro-level activity around problem solving as the essential vitality of the organization. Whether we look at the virus, insects, plants, animals, or employees, organic systems shift and adapt through the constant efforts of the individual in facing the challenges of the moment. Most species solve challenges by genetic experimentation; humans long ago abandoned that mode in favor of culture and cognition.

Since we are not born with the lessons of our ancestors embedded in our genes, it falls to the leader to cultivate a shared framework for effective problem solving. That shared framework is the common mind set that enables coordination across disparate individuals. It allows people to come together and quickly craft a common approach to any problem. To put it in other terms, problem solving is the micro-level capability with highly desirable macro-level consequences. It is the vitality of the organization.

Lessons #4: Organic organizations have no vision

We have such a romanticized notion of evolution that we sometimes forget that Mother Nature is not some benign, maternal force. In reality she’s a bitch! Mass extinctions are as natural as the splendors of evolution. The individual is totally expendable in the pursuit of greater adaptability for the species. Ecologies may become stable and support the lives of innumerable species, but they can also be quite brittle. When external circumstances shift faster than the adaptability of the member species, an ecology (or a marketplace!) can abruptly collapse.

So it is with organizations. They are adaptable, but they do not automatically look ahead to the next environment. Companies can easily find themselves outpaced by customer preferences, technological advances, economic shifts, political winds, and even natural disasters. It is the role of the leader to lift their attention above the fray and look to the next environment, and assure that the organization is not adapted too well to its current circumstances. Evolution naturally pursues specialization; long-term survival sometimes requires diversification instead. Think of the public utilities who did not anticipate deregulation. Look at the cities, counties, and states who assumed the DOTCOM bubble would fill the public coffers for decades. Remember the bright promise of the telecommunications industry?

So a fundamental contribution of the leader is to be those eyes to the future, to look ahead to the environment that is shaping up on the horizon. Our concern with squeezing every inefficiency out of operations must be tempered with an appreciation for innovation, experimentation, and even redundancy and error. These are the heart and soul of the nimble organization. They are the requirements for swift internal change in the face of external shifts. A wise leader may choose to cultivate limited adaptation in anticipation of new demands that could be fatal if the organization were not poised to change.

In Summary

Leadership may not be easy, but what makes it harder than necessary is the naive assumption that it requires directing and dictating. In today’s demanding economy, anxious leaders may give in to the temptation to drive the organization through detailed delegation, rewards and punishments aligned with desired behavior, and frequent reports to check on compliance. It all makes perfect sense. It just is not consistent with the way high-performing organizations operate.

When we take into account the organic nature of organizations, leadership takes on a entirely different tone. The focus shifts to the day-to-day life of employees. It is more important to pay attention to the framework within which employees think, and less attention to the specific behaviors they show. In fast-paced, nimble organizations, leaders cannot oversee every key decision; they have to rely on employees to act out of a shared view of the organization’s purpose, its current circumstance, and its capabilities. As employees everywhere find and grapple with problems, leaders have to provide the process model that will ensure a smooth and productive outcome.

So, leadership is less about directing the organization (like a machine), and more about building greater capability in problem solving (like an evolving, organic entity). This is the organization’s ability to adapt; problem solving is even more important than supposed “core” work activities. The work processes unique to an industry (such as processing loan applications in the banking industry) will eventually become commodities, and offer only the most temporary strategic advantage. But the ability to correctly identify and quickly resolve problems offers a sustainable strategic advantage, because it reflects the company’s ability to read its environment and learn to excel within it.

The other responsibility of the leader is at the other end of the spectrum. It is looking ahead, not just to find some far distant navigational point, but to anticipate changes in the environment that could render even the most successful organization abruptly irrelevant. The significance of visioning is well beyond our colloquial notions. It is not just the first stage of a strategic planning process. It is exercising a level of sight that is typically lost in the ongoing activities of the employees.

Other than that, leaders are pretty much free to spend their time as they wish.

Copyright © 2004 Jerry L. Talley
169 Sherland Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94043
Phone: (650) 967-1444