There are many different definitions of what leadership means. Put simply, leadership involve “getting from A to B most efficiently and effectively”.
This implies that:
- Leadership is about both principles and practices (see next section)
- It is a balance between theory and action
- Capability to be a leader builds with learning (both theoretical and practical)
- It is validated once tested in challenging situations
- Leadership applies to anyone in any role (no matter how many direct reports they may have)
- You do not need to have leadership in your profile to act as a leader
- Sometimes, the true leader of a group may be different from who the actual leader is
- Effective leadership requires effective management
- Leadership is more focussed on planning and effectiveness
- Management is more focussed on execution and efficiency
- Both leadership AND management are necessary; you cannot have one without the other
The below principles are key points to emphasise over and above commonly accepted leadership principles. They are not intended to be a comprehensive list.
Walk your talk.
What you do matters more than what you say.
- Actions speak louder than words because it is easier to talk about being a good leader, and harder to substantiate it consistently by role modelling great leadership.
- This implies that leaders do not necessarily need to be extraverts or have a loud voice; you can be a leader by being your best self (rather than trying to fit a “mould”).
- People with a choice will only follow those that they respect; and having people who follow you out of choice is the most effective, enjoyable and sustainable form of leadership over the long term.
Assume you are always being watched.
- Leaders (particularly new ones) do not realise that once they gain trust, respect and/or authority, they are always being observed by others.
- This observation does not just happen when undertaking formal courses of action, but often informally and at unexpected (and sometimes inopportune) times.
- Therefore, even though it may be difficult, you always need to be consistent in your behaviour and maintain composure as best as possible when in public.
You can lead from the front as well as the back.
- “Leading from the front” involves actively driving progress and being a focal contact point for action. This is appropriate when you need to start the movement and no one else is willing / feels safe to.
- “Leading from the back” involves supporting and influencing behind the scenes. This is appropriate when you want to empower others to drive the change to promote collaboration and sustained momentum.
- Either approach can work well when used in the appropriate situations; this is your judgement to make as a leader.
Leadership needs to be adapted to situation and context.
- Theoretical approaches need to be adapted to the context and situation at hand.
- This is often why it is said that new leaders require six or more months in a position before being able to be effective, as leaders:
- Need time to understand context and nuances of their situation
- Need shared experiences and time to build trust and prove capability (which in turn usually provides leaders with more situational context and support from others)
Understand the overall purpose and connect it to any action taken.
The purpose is usually there but may not easily understood or clearly visible to others.
People who do not understand why they are doing what they are doing are usually less effective, efficient and/or motivated than those who do.
You may have information that others may not have. This may allow you to better understand the overall goal and link to what you (and your team) are doing – and therefore provides you the opportunity to share information to help others make the connection.
Sometimes all the necessary information is available but is not being viewed by others from the necessary perspective that allows them to connect to the overall goal. You may have this perspective and therefore you would have more clarity than others. This is an opportunity for you to share this perspective so that others can more easily connect to the overall goal.
If the purpose is not clear to you, do what you can to create it.
Sometimes the thinking has not been done at all, or the linkage provided is unclear (e.g. unexpected circumstances, poor planning). This provides you with an opportunity to find and understand the overall purpose by seeking clarification or creating the meaning yourself (even as an unproven hypothesis that you can later validate). This may include creatively brainstorming potential benefits and positive outcomes for the target audience of your work (e.g. paying customers), the people you work with to complete these outcomes (e.g. team mates, managers, subordinates), as well as yourself (e.g. connection to personal goals and values). Once you do this, you may be able to justify the required course of action – or even propose a better set of actions.
Sometimes you may not agree with the overall purpose or required actions. You may even perceive that the purpose or actions are unethical, immoral or even illegal. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to reject the request to complete required actions, or even remove yourself from the situation entirely. However, it would be ideal to attempt (as best as you can) to find or create a “higher” meaning that allows you to complete the required actions without violating ethical, moral or legal standards… and step away only if absolutely necessary.
Be like a shock absorber in a car.
Do not pass information or directives up and down the management hierarchy before checking for completeness, filtering for relevance, and/or reframing where appropriate
In nearly all situations, you have an opportunity as a leader to make a meaningful contribution in enhancing the information provided to others so that they can take more effective and efficient action.
You may receive incomplete information that needs to be passed on to others. These may include instructions, directives and context (usually from superiors to pass to inferiors and teammates); or deliverables for review and outputs for action (usually from inferiors and team mates to pass to superiors). You should always do your best to obtain as much necessary information as possible, so the message is complete and easily understood by the next recipient.
However, make sure to balance this with the need to share information quickly, particularly if there is a time sensitive request. Sometimes it may be better to share incomplete information rather than waiting for a perfect set of information. (If this is the case, you can acknowledge this, and empower your team to act reasonably on the limited information available – with the request that they come back to you for confirmation before making any critical or irreversible decisions based on the limited information you have provided.)
The information you receive from others may be biased, emotionally loaded or phrased unconstructively (e.g. emphasising the negative in a situation instead of covering a more balanced point of view). Where possible and appropriate, you should do your best to frame the information so that it is interpreted in the most appropriate and constructive perspective. (Note that you must be careful not to change the content in a way that it fundamentally changes the purpose in which it was shared to you. This is particularly tricky when communicating problems up and down the management hierarchy.)
Where possible, turn undesirable situations into constructive and meaningful ones.
Sometimes you may be provided with a situation which is undesirable and perceived as not being conducive to achieving your (and your team’s) desired outcomes
If this occurs, you have an opportunity to convert a “negative” into a “positive” situation (instead of continuing to perpetuate any “negativity”).
This of course needs to be balanced with appropriate acknowledgement and empathy of any undesirable situations, as well as teasing out deeper root causes before moving forward constructively.
- There are passive and active ways of redirecting focus constructively, including:
- Passive redirection: examples include ignoring (i.e. not focussing on) non-relevant information and focussing emphasis on what is relevant, as well as asking targeted questions to refocus onto relevant information
- Active redirection: this may involve explicitly noting that the emphasis has waned into irrelevant areas, and directly requesting for focus to be redirected onto what is relevant
- Per principle ‘Leadership needs to be adapted to situation and context’, these methods should be adapted to situation and context to ensure appropriate application and execution.
Reflect on past performance to improve future performance.
- This should ideally be done personally daily or weekly, at a team level weekly or fortnightly, at a division level (i.e. multiple teams) monthly or quarterly, and (if possible) organisationwide quarterly or half-yearly.
- Informal methods to facilitate reflection include journaling, asking others how they are feeling, and informal check-ins (e.g. cup of coffee or a walk)
- Formal methods may include retrospectives (facilitated exercises to understand what went well, what did not go well, and growth opportunities for the future), post-implementation reviews (where appropriate), and surveys (both qualitative and quantitative).
- Note: it may be challenging to create time, capacity or capability to reflect. However, it is a valuable feedback mechanism to continuously ensure that you and others are tracking effectively and efficiently towards the goal. If in doubt, it is usually better to proceed with an “imperfectly executed” reflection than not to do it at all. However, this needs to be balanced against the situation at hand (e.g. particularly contentious situations may need to be handled expertly and precisely).
Provide the context, capacity, capability and coordination necessary to enable distributed decision making.
Providing context includes ensuring sufficient information transparency. This includes cascading information appropriately up, down and across the management hierarchy, with action taken to ensure appropriate sharing of information (per Principle ‘Do not pass information or directives up and down the management hierarchy before checking for completeness, filtering for relevance, and/or reframing where appropriate’). However, care and consideration is required to ensure that information is not shared inappropriately (including confidential and market sensitive information).
Providing capacity involves planning and ensuring sufficient resourcing is provided for tasks at hand, prioritising activities when insufficient resourcing is provided, and communicating to other relevant parties (including leaders and other stakeholders) if prioritisation decisions have been made or are required. This is arguably the most difficult but important duties in the day-to-day life of an effective leader, no matter what level of hierarchy you are in.
Providing capability includes doing what is necessary to progressively build the skills of the people (including yourself) who are undertaking relevant work. This may involve active measures (e.g. investment of time and funds) and passive measures (e.g. providing support and encouragement for others to partake in skill building activities). When done effectively, this may lead to increased capacity (e.g. person can do activity more effectively and efficiently, thereby taking less time to do so) and autonomy (e.g. person has increased capability to make correct decisions and therefore requires less supervision).
Providing coordination involves establishing processes and immediate feedback loops to ensure that a team effectively and efficiently conducts actions required to achieve the goal. The main difference between reflection focuses on providing “lagging” feedback on things Practical Leadership Advice- by Andy Griffing © Andy Griffing, 2020. All rights reserved. that have happened, whereas coordination focuses on providing “leading” feedback to provide immediate feedback in real-time on things that are happening, as well as anticipate things that may happen in the future. It also includes documenting agreements appropriately (and efficiently) to ensure clarity of direction moving forward.
Note: each of the four empowerment practices mentioned above can be onerous to execute and undertake. Conceptually, the objective should be to find the optimal mix of minimum effort necessary for the required objective to be met. Practically, a way of determining this mix may involve determining whether you (and others) feel that the processes are working for you (which may indicate that processes are being executed effectively and efficiently), or whether you (and others) feel like you are working for the process (which may indicate that the processes are not being executed effectively or efficiently – and that further tweaking is required).
Encourage discussion and action in difficult areas to achieve the goal.
Where necessary to engage in difficult conversations and actions, start by acknowledging the challenging nature of the situation at hand (e.g. challenging internal organisational politics, perception of vested interests, divergent opinions on solution options, situations where the risk of failure is significant and/or has substantial consequences if risk is realised)
Once this is done, work with and encourage all necessary stakeholders to provide input so that the problem at hand is well understood and defined. Encourage and ensure psychological safety so that people feel supported in providing authentic and transparent input, which is important to having an accurate definition of the problem to solve.
If appropriate and required, utilise understanding of the problem at hand to brainstorm and define constructive solution options that address the root causes of problems, as well as how to execute.
This will include clearly delineating issues that are within the span of you (and your team’s) control and influence versus solutions that are outside of your span of control (encourage noting and redirection of these issues to other people or teams who can address them, then deprioritise focus). It also may include identifying resources and support required to address the problem (including identifying any required allies and what their incentives are to help solve the problem with you).
If this is done effectively, you and the people you work with will be more able to deal with challenging situations in a more successful way.