Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Leadership Dilemma

I’m lucky to have worked in a number of different companies, cultures and countries.  One quality that effective leaders are meant to have in all of them is that they “walk the talk”. 

The British armed forces (and, I’m sure, others as well) have a principle that an officer should never ask those under his or her command to do something that they wouldn’t be prepared to do themselves.  Sadly, this attitude is often lacking in the corporate world.  The ones at whom people sneer behind their backs are those who use the “do as I say, not as I do” approach.

 Is this necessarily wrong?  Sometimes, it depends on “culture”.  There are cultures where leadership by example is the norm, and others where doing as you’re told is the accepted way of doing things.  In the latter case, leaders who “muck in” risk being seen as not important enough or even not trusting enough (otherwise, why would they be doing the work of their “juniors”?).  

This may even drive down to businesses.  In the same country, you may find one business where the culture says “let’s get this done together” and others where the hierarchy is much more rigidly observed.  The same “teamwork” exercise applied to the different cultures will produce very different results.  

Is one culture “better” than the other?  I recommend judging by results – both the end result and also how people feel during the process of achieving them as well as when they have achieved them.  If people feel exploited and un-valued/under-valued, that they haven’t been given the necessary guidance or resources or that they haven’t been given the recognition that they deserve, then the exercise (however they were led) is a failure.  The person who influences all this is the leader.

I see a lot in management/leadership literature about “motivation” as if it were a tool that could be taken out of a box and used as needed before being put back in its place until the next time it’s required.  My own view is that motivation must be as natural as breathing.  We motivate our team members, peers and even bosses with our behaviour and actions every minute of every day.  

The problem is that very few of us realise this, and (speaking for myself anyway!) find it difficult to behave consistently in a manner that will do this.  There are days when we’ll be “off colour” and people will notice.  Then we have to bring other tools out of the management tool box to sort things out. 

So back to the beginning: is leading by example “good” or “bad”?  In my opinion, behaving as I would expect others to is no bad thing.  It sets the tone and standard.  If someone gently corrects me, or points out that it’s OK (or, indeed, expected) for me to stand back, then fine.  This is even more the case if others can do it better than I can.  Great leaders know when to stand back and let those “who know what they’re doing get on with it”.  

I have spent more than half my life delivering change in different world markets from the most developed to “emerging” economies. With more than 20 years in the world financial services industry running different service, operations and lending businesses, I started my own Performance Management Consultancy to offer solutions for improving performance, productivity and risk management.  I work with individuals, small businesses, charities, quoted companies and academic institutions across the world. An international speaker, trainer, author and fund-raiser, I can be contacted by email . My website provides a full picture of my portfolio of services.  For strategic questions that you should be asking yourself, follow me at @wkm610.

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