What is leadership? As Dr Johnson observed about light, it’s easy to see what light is, but not so easy to say what it is; so with leadership – we can easily see its positive presence – and the dire consequence of its absence – but to say what it is proves more tricky.
I think leadership has four core skill components that may be divided into two major groups: what may be called skills that work on the business (or organisation) and those that work in it.
The skills that work on a business are strategy and implementation. This involves formulating a vision, creating a strategy on how to achieve it, and then creating objectives that break the bigger picture down into smaller chunks. The implementation means systematising and making efficiently operational all aspects of the product and service. When these two skills cohere and work hand in hand – wow! – the business can fly: the dream is realisable.
But working in the business can often be more problematic. First, it means the skill of being able to create effective teams. Why? Because we all know that Together Each Achieves More. Teams are synergistic – you get exponential, rather than arithmetic, productivity from them. Here, however, we are entering the difficult realm of the ambiguous: dealing with people.
Then, even trickier, leaders need to motivate people: as one thinks about every one-to-one meeting that they have during the day. Do these motivate or de-motivate staff? And, of course, the idea that the vision and the implementation can be successfully produced without teams and without motivated staff is fanciful, if sometimes possible. When it does possibly happen it is invariably with massive wastage.
Yet, even supposing leaders had these four core skills, would the organisation work? For a time, but not for long. The truth is, if having these four skills made a great leader then every educational institute in the world would be churning out great leaders to order. And we see that they are not; in fact, we see that great leadership is relatively a rare quality. What then is missing and why?
The reason the skills on their own don’t work is because they are fundamentally static – they don’t develop, they stay fixed, and what tends to happen is that people try to solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s tools – and these become, day by day, less relevant.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but people don’t get it. We are living in a rapidly changing environment, but people – leaders – desperately want to hold on to the old skill set that worked once upon a time.
The missing dynamic is not a skill at all but a personal quality – an aptitude if you will. Leadership is like people-ship: if we are not growing, then we are dying; we have retreated into the shell of what is safe and secure – and we fix – like a light bulb in a socket – our response to experience. We increasingly, in short, solve yesterday’s problems.
The start of breaking free of this is self-awareness. But once one sees it for what it is, a commitment to some personal development programme is the only true way of ensuring that one continues to grow and becomes a leader fit and ready for the present day challenges.
So, if you are a leader, what are you currently doing for your personal development? What are you doing to prepare for the future? Are you consigning your leadership capabilities to solving problems that will become increasingly irrelevant to what is happening now?