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The Art of Leadership

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“In the face of adversity, be grateful, for such opportunities do not come by often.”– Buddha

We know a lot about leadership; the application of leadership creates confusion for most. Virtually everyone looks for the art of leadership. It is claimed by many, defined by a few, and exercised by the unheralded, depending on your source.

Despite all the leadership texts having a veritable plethora of theories about leadership (each of which is THE KEY), leadership stays a very individual concept, exercised in many diverse yet successful ways. Indeed, a successful application always results in leadership. Unsuccessful application is invariably counter-productive. So, is this another theory? No, but I will share with you some of my observations about where to look for leadership. Although we may not be able to define it very precisely, we can recognize it when we see it.

We know that there are people called formal leaders and informal leaders in some of the literature. I will not talk about those legal leaders because they occupy positions of authority (i.e., a supervisory role), their sole claim to leadership. On the other hand, informal leaders exercise leadership from classes not formally appointed for leadership, thus causing a problem for the organization. How the informal leader arises is curious, but it can often be caused by the lack of leadership in the formal position. But that does not mean that the grand man theory takes place (that is, when a crisis occurs and there is no one prepared to deal with it, someone will rise to the occasion and deal with it). Why is someone not in a leadership position given authority by the group in which they work to exercise leadership?

There are, of course, several answers to that question, so let us examine some of them. It may be that the one who is the leader is a confident (at least confidently acting) person with a bit of charisma, thus one who offers logical answers to questions from the group and who may have the ability to prove that they have clever ideas. We often see this in groups that begin by discussing problems; if no one is in charge, the leader who appears is usually the person who proves the most passion about the topic.

Sometimes, the prophet does not have much of a vision, but that does not mean they are incapable of pursuing one (or having one in the first place). Or they may be impatient for action and goads others into a particular activity that appears to achieve some common goals. In this case, the group tends to rally behind the visionary.

Another possibility is that one of these groups recognizes that things can be done to help everyone involved, much like the development of John Nash’s gaming theory (the basis for the movie, A Beautiful Mind). The concern is not for the betterment, enrichment, or even recognition of the leader but for achieving group goals, including the entire organization.

When we find this leader of the latter sort, John Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls them Level 5 leaders. They are the ones who are enthusiastic about the achievement of the whole, not of themselves individually. These leaders are not heralded because they do not blow their horns. They are too busy working toward meaningful goals to be distracted by something so counter-productive. Yet they do some things that we can see proves their leadership. Some of those things are where I would like to focus this discussion.

Leaders who are enthusiastic about their vision (they ALWAYS have an idea) are careful to ensure everyone knows what that vision is. They will brainwash everyone so that it is not simply a vision, but a substantial part of the environment, so much so that it will go home with employees at night. Everything that flows then reflects that vision because the image becomes the beacon that guides the actions of everyone in the organization.

Those leaders know their people well: their personalities, histories, and passions. The leader knows them because of the leadership involved in attracting and keeping the right people to do the job. They reach back to the theory of W. Edwards Deming, not necessarily for Statistical Process Control techniques (although they are valuable), but for Demings 14 Points, one of which is to ensure adequate and continuous training. If the right people are on the job and given the resources to get the job done, cheerleading is a waste of time because these workers already get out of bed in the morning excited about going to work. Motivation? It’s boiling inside each of them, and they do not need slogans, mantras, or group meetings to cheer about history because the self-actualized person is also initiative-taking. They know their jobs and what is expected of them, and they know they are responsible to the rest of the employees to do the best job possible. One reason that happens is that the individual has been involved in developing their career and responsibilities for that job, they have been informed about how their job fits into the overall scheme, and they are intimately involved in changes in the company. Revolutionary? No, it has been in the books for decades.

When leaders develop this kind of employee, and the managers supervise those employees, they are freed up to do the academic tasks: keeping the goal in sight and making the course corrections necessary when changing conditions require them. Tweaking is a skill these leaders have that is taught in no school, making it much more valuable.

My history is a ten-year stint as a division controller for a manufacturing firm is my history The division manager was a visionary who brought the division from a lackluster, poorly motivated, money-losing operation to an energetic, proud organization that had reached ISO 9000 certification on its way to becoming profitable. Over those ten years, I watched that manager steadfastly steer the division in the direction he clearly defined vision. Not all his actions were precisely correct, but that did not keep us from learning from them. And the division became a model for the corporation, while the division manager became a regional manager so his skills could be used in other divisions.

He had learned that putting the team together was his biggest job, but once that was done, the group drove the progress. He got out of the way. His time was not spent showing what he had done; it was spent supplying the tools to the team members so they could get where he wanted faster. If he needed to do something that should have been done by one of the team members, that team member was, by definition, unnecessary and was eliminated. That does not mean that mistakes were not tolerated, nor that effort was not made to ensure the team member was adequately placed and trained. But when it became clear that change was necessary, it occurred quickly and cleanly. It was a joy to work there, especially seeing that unsung leadership.

There are some things we as individuals can do if we want to develop our leadership:

1. Keep focused on the primary goal of your company. Never let yourself be distracted from that.

2. Surround yourself not with those who only agree with you but with the right people for the job you need to do. Train them and supply them with the tools to do the job.

3. Recognize the benefits of having different personalities around you. Not only do separate skill sets come with different characters, but other approaches are essential to your company’s success.

4. Having hired the right people, get out of their way. If you must micromanage them, you do not need them. However, this is not a big problem since they will not stay anyway if you treat them with little respect.

5. Remember always to consult your feedback loop in all your processes to ensure things are working as you expect and that you can make proper changes promptly. Failure to do this hastens the loss of your organization in total. Recall that your feedback loop is only as valuable as those from whom you get feedback. Listen to them.

6. Know when you have exceeded your limitations and acknowledge them. Then get help to overcome it.

Each of us can be a leader. We will only become influential leaders, however, when we lose our fear of making mistakes and share responsibility for the achievement of the goals of the organization. If those goals are our measures of achievement, then the organization will work to succeed and achieve; if they are not, we will be the transient leader that gets things going but fails by not sharing credit and pushing for only the good of the organization.

Dare to achieve.

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