Leading like you mean it

Change is the dominant reality in an evolving universe, and suffering is an inescapable concomitant of change for self-conscious beings.

The pain, stress, and failure that accompany all personal and communal growth prompt thinking creatures to ask why this should be, and when there are no satisfactory answers, we experience the mental anguish called suffering. The implications for leaders are obvious because leadership is, by definition, about change.

My early seminars focused on what leadership means, human nature, change and creativity, and building sound relationships. They emphasised that leadership is not a set of skills, but a state of mind built on a commitment to truth. Hence the programme’s title — ‘Leading like you mean it’.

Abraham Lincoln provided a compelling example of leading like you mean it. Self-educated, and tempered by professional failure and family tragedy, he steadfastly steered his country through the storm of civil war, deploying an uncooperative crew to meet the challenge of their mutinous compatriots. Leadership is never easy; for Lincoln, it was a living hell. Yet he persevered and saved the United States, removing the terrible institution that contradicted her commitment to freedom.

John Kotter emphasised: ‘Leaders produce change. That is their primary function’. Most people are averse to change, but standing still means falling behind. Markets change, competitors change, technology changes, and people change. No matter how good things are today, the world moves on, challenging us to think afresh.

According to Stanley Jaki: ‘Change means future. There is no future unless there is change.’ And leadership means changing things to make a better future. We start with potential and aim at perfection, driving the necessary change.

The most common lament from managers stuck in a rut is that operational commitments leave them no time for leadership. The first step in helping them is to expose the lie at the heart of their situation. Working excessive hours under severe stress for protracted periods ravages psychological and physical health. Over-work also steals time required for personal relationships, and the resultant dysfunction further impedes productivity.

These facts contradict the canard that working longer hours is the way to achieve success. If a business can only turn a profit by running its people into the ground, then it deserves to go bust, and the sooner the better. Eight hours a day from an energetic and enthusiastic person clearly trumps ten hours from a demoralised and demotivated functionary.

Lack of leadership is actually the cause of the time-consuming people issues that plague most businesses. The managerial attitude — expecting the system to work like a machine, with functionaries mindlessly processing the work — encourages managers to stay in their comfort zone, the operational box, instead of getting out into the leadership sphere that transcends it. That is where the activities that generate productive change occur.

Examples abound: a senior scientist, close to a nervous breakdown, tried leading like he meant it, and re-energised and refocused his team, easing the pressure on himself in the process.

An overworked call-centre manager sparked a dramatic turnaround in morale and performance in her team when she started inspiring people instead of drilling functionaries.

An automotive franchisee with a stagnating workshop decided in desperation to review his deployment of resources. In doing so, he envisioned new possibilities, and now leads three flourishing retail outlets.

Leading like you mean it works, but requires focussing on the five essential tasks of leadership, evoked by the mnemonic STORM:

Strategy — understanding the potential at your disposal; developing a vision; devising the means to achieve it; and constantly assessing progress and further possibilities.
Team-building — this goes beyond individuals and team to cover all relationships in the value chain, i.e. the multitude of links with everyone required to add value to your operation. Corporate culture, brand, and customer service are essential leadership responsibilities.
Organisation — making sure things happen on brief, on budget, and on time, through sound resourcing, systems, processes, time management, knowledge management, and administration; and it provides a host of opportunities for delegation, empowerment, and the development of incipient leaders.
Reflection — thinking about your people and your business equips you to understand the challenges, see the possibilities, and drive the necessary change.
Making decisions — consult all you like, but you still have to reach your own conclusion. Making no decision is a decision to let someone else lead.

These are the activities that drive fruitful change, but they can’t be done in the operational box. Getting out takes personal development built on the following factors, all discussed in future articles:
• Personal integrity — the foundation of leadership
• Daily reflection — thinking for yourself
• On-going education — understanding the world and your part in it
• Respect for human potential — getting the best out of yourself and others
• Trust and character — understanding attitudes and emotional intelligence
• Creativity and strategy — always seeking a better way
• Communication and motivation — building relationships
• Confidence — inspiring hope

In short, leadership development starts with personal development – the change required to equip you to lead like you mean it.

The above is a précis of Chapter Three of Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. In the next article, Andre will consider The Power of Integrity.