Article: What is leadership?


What is leadership?

It is not about power or authority, having subordinates, or even personality qualities or styles. It's about setting a goal, or an intended outcome, and garnering support for doing so.
What is leadership?

Leadership has become one of those HR terms that are extensively used, defined differently by many, but misunderstood by most.  So, what is Leadership? 

One of the best definitions I have seen was authored by Kevin Kruse, CEO, LEADx, in a Forbes article.  He defined Leadership as, “A process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”  In that article, he explained that it is not about authority or power, not about having direct reports, and not even about traits or styles. But, it is about having a goal; an intended outcome, and garnering support for achieving it.

In a similar vein, I have often differentiated Leadership from Management in the following way:

  • Leadership: Creating a vision of the future, bringing it alive, and securing the resources and commitment to deliver it.
  • Management: Optimising the use of resources to deliver the vision in line with the mission, strategy, and values; making things happen.

The two are complementary yet quite different.  An appropriate balance needs to be struck between them.  Unfortunately, many use an excess of management in an attempt to compensate for a lack of leadership.

Why is a hybrid world different?

The substantive question is really, “Why is remote working (the significant component of hybrid working) different?”  We are only just beginning to really understand.  Evidence is accumulating to show that remote working really is different. And, the use of some contemporary technology “solutions” has unforeseen side effects and consequences.  These are some of the arising issues:

  1. A dramatic increase in the number of whole team meetings.  With virtual platforms they are just easier.  Some studies put the increase since the start of the pandemic above 150%.  The upside is that teams are getting together more often.  Potential downsides include more groupthink; longer decision-making timelines; and a reduction in the number of more effective one-to-one meetings.
  2. Various studies have also shown that around 75% of meetings now fail to achieve their objectives, if indeed they had any!
  3. Relationships are weakening due to virtual emotional distance - lower empathic responses during virtual meetings.
  4. Informal information flow is decreasing due to the lack of ad hoc face to face interactions and the cognitive disconnect this creates.
  5. Reduced decision-making efficiency and less radical decisions as consensus is used more widely for decisions that could have been handled by individuals.
  6. Weaker information flow due to lower levels of conscious attention during virtual meetings - we are more easily distracted when in a virtual meeting than in a face-to-face one, and even more so if our own webcam is off. 

What are organisations doing?

Despite, or perhaps ignoring, all of those concerns, organisations have been forced to embrace hybrid working. The general consensus on how to do it appears to include these four themes:

  • Compromise – allow individuals to choose 2 to 3 days of remote working per week unless that clearly cannot work for their specific role e.g., receptionist, security guard, machine operator, teller, driver, ….
  • Implement a one-size fits all collaboration platform and use it for as many forms of interaction as possible e.g., messaging, virtual meetings, document sharing, training, ….
  • Manage performance by focusing on goals, objectives, measurable outputs.
  • Encourage use of whole-team meetings for general communication and decision making.

These have little if anything to do with leadership.  They are over-simplified, sub-optimal, generic attempts at addressing the symptoms.  They come nowhere near to satisfying Kevin Kruse’s definition, “A process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” They similarly fail to match my own definition. “Creating a vision of the future, bringing it alive, and securing the resources and commitment to deliver it. And, as explained above, they come with very substantial medium to long-term consequences.

Seven Keys to Success

If you really want to demonstrate leadership in a hybrid world, try these keys:

Key 1 – Create a clear vision of the future

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,” Lewis Carroll.  As leaders, we need to define precisely why we are asking for things to be done; what the purpose of all our efforts is; what success will look like.  Without that purpose, all our staff have is chores to do!   With a clear purpose, they understand why they are asked to do things.  Then, they can make better choices about how to use their time.

Key 2 – Bring your vision of the future alive

Those working remotely need to be embraced.  They need to feel that they are an important part of something bigger.  They need to feel that their efforts are contributing to some greater good.  This has always been true of all employees but remoteness heightens the need.  As leaders, we need to articulate our vision clearly, frequently, and with passion.  We need to bring it alive. If we don’t actively demonstrate our commitment to it, why should they?

Key 3 – Ensure that each individual understands the precise standards you seek

This is not going to be accomplished via email or in whole team meetings.  You may be the most articulate person in your organisation but that is no guarantee that anyone understands what you have asked of them.  Yes, you have to define your expectations smartly.  But you also have to check the other party’s understanding.  That is not achieved by keep repeating it or by asking, “Do you understand.”  In a one-to-one conversation you need to ask them, “Just to make sure that I have made myself clear, can you run back past me what you believe I want to you to achieve and the relative priorities?” and listen attentively to their answer.

Key 4 – Discover who you can trust by trusting them first

“We can’t see them. So, how do we know what they are doing; how can we manage them?”  The brutal reality is that those who express this view probably don’t manage their teams well anyway, even in the face-to-face environment!  Trust is a great motivator.  But, it is not about letting people do what you know they can do.  It is about letting them try to do what you don’t know they can do.  If that doesn’t sit well with you, management is probably not for you!  There has to be trust before certainty – you have to let go.

Key 5 – Engage frequently, individually, and briefly with each of your team

There are 7 critically important topics that you should discuss with each of your team, individually, and only one topic at a time – hence the need for frequent discussions:

  1. Wellness - Checking on and supporting the engagement and wellness of each team member;
  2. Priorities -  Ensuring that each team member understands the prevailing priorities;
  3. Expectations Ensuring that each team member understands the performance expectations of them (WHAT, HOW and GROWTH);
  4. Evidence - Collecting or sharing with each team member evidence of their prevailing performance;
  5. Recognition - Providing recognition and positive reinforcement (WHAT, HOW and GROWTH);
  6. Correction-   Working with an individual team member to redirect unacceptable performance (WHAT, HOW or GROWTH);
  7. Blockers Seeking input on what may be inhibiting performance.
Key 6 – Make each conversation deliberate and focused, and listen

If you want to know what is happening remotely, you need to have focused conversations and listen very attentively. Do not underestimate how difficult that is!  This is another reason why short conversations are more effective.  They give you chance to practice and revise your approach after each one.

Key 7 – Recognise incremental successes

Most of all, make sure that you spot things that are going well – who each person is going about their work; incremental achievements that they make; …. specifically recognise these.  Ensure that your recognition is credible using the SBI approach:

  • Situation: E.g., “The other day in the meeting with the procurement team I could see that they were putting pressure on you to go for the cheapest proposal.”
  • Behaviour: E.g., “I really liked the way that you listened to their explanation and then took them calmly through your risk assessments of each proposal.”
  • Impact: E.g., “You ensured that we got the best option approved and I also believe that procurement learned something from you.  Thank you for being so well prepared and holding the line.

Yes, leading in a hybrid world is challenging.  But, frankly, so is leading face-to-face.  The good news is that there are easy to do things that can make a big difference.  Take a step back, think about your own needs and feelings, and take the actions that will ensure your team are informed, aligned, and supported.

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR, #GuestArticle, #HybridLeadership

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