A young friend began her essay on leadership by writing that society had forgotten what leadership is about, but examples of good leadership could be found in the military. She was partly right, the military has developed the art of leadership better than most. But she was wrong about society. Society, whatever that means, has not forgotten what leadership is, and her statement was emblematic of a common practice. That is to put down someone or something in order to make your own point of view appear more virtuous. It comes up most often in the coffee conversations I often write about. Society, or them, or those people, whose degenerate way of life defines all that is wrong with the nation, are set against the high standards of virtuous self righteousness that I and my friends share. It’s such a common thing to do that my young essayist wasn’t aware she had done it too.
Maybe it’s always been that way. After all, over two thousand years ago Jesus counseled his followers to examine the log in their own eyes before trying to take the splinter out of another’s eye. Jesus didn’t have the internet, and that does make a difference. We see splinters everywhere, logs nowhere, and tell the whole world about it without much reflection. More on that some other time. What I want to consider here is the idea of leadership.
Borrowing from W. Edwards Deming, among others, effective leadership is always about doing what one can to create conditions under which others can achieve success. I call it effective leadership because there are all kinds of ineffective leadership. Cruel leaders, incompetent leaders, selfish leaders, ignorant leaders, lazy leaders, there are all kinds of leaders out there. Effective leaders, by definition, are committed to creating conditions under which others can achieve success. It makes all the difference. For one thing, creating those conditions requires attention to the health of the organization itself, the community, if you will. It’s hard, not impossible, but hard for someone to achieve success if the community in which one works is not healthy, and what is required for community health?
At a minimum it means that adequate facilities and resources are available to all who need them in order to be successful. It requires that everyone has equitable access to them, and knows how to use them. It also means other parts of the community, or organization, that provide support services are equally well endowed to do their jobs. That won’t happen unless structures and processes are in place to create and implement coordinated decision making and communication between all parties. Finally, none of it's worth anything unless there's a clear understanding of the market: who and what are we doing this for, do they care, do they know, will it work? Call that mission, goals, marketing, whatever. If you don’t know who your audience is, how can what you’re doing have any purpose?
We tend to think of leadership, and try to teach leadership, as if it was a form of one-on-one applied psychology, and in part it is, but effective leaders know that individual persons and teams they are leading cannot succeed if the organization is dysfunctional. So effective leadership has a lot to do with the sociology and politics of organizations, which is why we’ve spent so much time on that side of things so far. The other side does have to do with how effective leaders work with others on a more personal level.
With that in mind, effective leaders who work to help others succeed know how to listen, I mean really listen. They listen to what superiors, peers, and subordinates have to say with an ear toward a deeper understanding of how to make things work better, whatever better might mean. They listen to stories about life and its pressures that may require a flexible response outside the normal way of doing things. They listen for opportunities, and for problems. They listen, as much as possible, without pre-judment. They listen with penetrating discernment not unlike an old teacher of mine who would often say, “That’s a great answer; what’s the question?” Having listened, they work for solutions, not blame. It’s hard work.
Effective leaders know that every system works within acceptable standards of variation, so they don’t worry much about ordinary day-to-day changes, but look for the exceptions that signal something is really out of whack. Sometimes exceptions are just exceptions and need to be ignored. Sometimes they signal a big problem. Knowing the difference is what effective leaders work to discover through the people they lead. At the same time, they work on ways to reduce ordinary variation in performance so output, however measured, improves at ever higher levels of consistency and quality. Knowing what higher levels of consistency and quality mean is key, which is why effective leaders communicate clearly what they are, understanding that people tend to live up to them if they have confidence that they are achievable, clearly understood, and supported by the organization or community. Effective leaders find their success in the success of others. We call that humility, something in short supply among ineffective leaders.
It brings me back to the opening point. Effective leaders don’t put others down in order to make themselves, or their team, look good.
How many effective leaders are there? Not as many as we need. I hope my young essayist becomes one of them.