Does every pack need a leader?

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I’ve been doing some thinking recently about the idea of ‘natural leadership’, and by extension how we react TO leaders and how we sometimes can choose to act AS leaders. And if we do adopt a leadership position, do we do it well? Let me explain why this is a recurring preoccupation for me as this post goes to press (figuratively).

The company I work for has – to its credit – an enduring commitment to volunteering and ‘giving back’ to the community. This can take many formats. At a local level many of my colleagues work with schools and on multiple and varied community based projects. Sometimes a company grant is given, but the time given by the individual is always underwritten, both by the company and the volunteer. So you might be out of the office for an afternoon, the irony being that typically the ‘work will be waiting for you when you get back’. But it’s a much valued flexibility. And it is real, it’s not an act. So credit where it’s due.

For my part and on a personal level I have had an enduring involvement in ‘stuff outside work’ for a long time. Notably this kicked in as my children have matured (aka ‘we don’t need you anymore’ – only kidding guys). Among other things this has involved being the unpaid night-time secretary of my beloved Tennis Club, and also acting as a facilitator for a small business program designed to help entrepreneurs learn from each other and learn ‘best practice’. I learned a lot from this experience, because in a non-work hierarchical structure, you have to earn respect. Your pay grade does NOT count. So it’s all about logic, earning your stripes, reaching out to primeval skills (fight or flight) and building alliances in the dirty world of Tennis Club politics.

Actually that all sounds terrible. In reality it’s very rewarding on a personal basis, and if it wasn’t I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m not a masochist. So fast forward to 2015. The high water mark of ‘supporting volunteering’ in my company is the ‘Corporate Service Corps’ – CSC for short. The nomination process is lengthy, requires support from your manager, and ‘many are called but few are chosen’. Last year, and more in hope than confidence I lodged my application. Perhaps it was my sustained track record of ‘giving back’ that got my application across the line, but lo and behold I was told in March 2015 that I was ‘accepted for the program’. So what does this mean?

In very practical terms I get to go to work on a project or series of projects in a developing country, and I have to set things up back home so that my work is managed to a reasonable degree. Actually that in itself is a benefit, because you do need to analyse what you do, who can cover it, and then convince them that it’s a ‘developmental opportunity’ for them. How many of us are really able to say with confidence ‘what we do’? So that’s a positive in itself in terms of role clarification. On the home front I have still to decide definitively who gets to cut the grass every week and to put out the recycling. The candidates (read ‘young adult children living at home’) are fleeing for the exits as we speak, but no doubt candidates will be found, binding commitments extracted under duress, and taped to the fridge as per usual. This will be yet another acid test of my leadership skills, albeit it may be more management in nature (more anon).

I didn’t actually reveal the destination I will be headed for (master of suspense that I am) but it is Rwanda, in central Africa. Most people associate this country with horrific events in the mid-90s, and this did undeniably and the more I read, unbelievably happen. But all my research to date suggests that Rwanda has emerged from that dark period and is now ‘on the up’. Trust me, you will hear more about Rwanda in this blog as the assignment unfolds so I won’t delve any deeper for the present. But cue temporary respite.

Back to leadership, and here’s the thing. There will be about 12-14 fellow employees from around the world headed to Rwanda for the same four week engagement. We have ‘met’ on a number of structure conference calls so far. We span the globe, covering all continents and we come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Some people would not have English as their primary language and some have more experience than others, both in work and in life. In other and less judgemental words, there is an age range and quite possibly I’m the one closest to a pension!

What is probably most fascinating – to me, anyway – is how we’re going to evolve as a team? Who leads, who follows? Will we actually need leaders? Will democracy emerge and deliver a collective decision-making process? We have already begun, as a global multicultural, multi-skilled group, to draft a ‘code of conduct’. That however is more focussed on areas like respecting each other, inclusiveness, presenting a united front and accepting each other’s skills as complementing our own. But are there other people like me in the mix who (oops) have a dictatorial gene and will struggle to control it? Will we end up like a corporate version of ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’? In truth I don’t think we will, albeit I worry a bit that the desire ‘not to take the lead’ might translate into being under-engaged. So another theme to come back to in due course.

So finally, to get to what I planned to write this post about. What IS the distinction between leadership and management? On the basis that you may have read this far to find out my views on this, here’s a pithy summary based on a lifetime of learning, of working for good and bad leaders AND managers. And of trying to become a good manager and leader myself, because sometimes you need to be one or the other, occasionally both. Obviously I don’t have all the answers (I feel your shock even from this distance), and when you consider the vast number of books written about these themes, my small contribution could be seen as puny. Or alternatively as concise, a word I much prefer. Here is the speed-read version, but I do plan to come back to this theme in a future post. Opinions are my own (obviously) – just like we say ‘Tweets are my own’. And there are no names, deliberately.

For me, a manager controls and a leader inspires trust. A manager tends to maintain, and a leader tends to develop. A manager accepts the status quo, and the leader challenges it. I realise fully that these are just sound-bites and it’s possible to be bad at both disciplines as well as good. But in my experience the best of breed in each of the above disciplines ticks the boxes as outlined. I’m more interested in leadership than management, because I think it’s more engaging, challenging, and it is to an extent where I need to be thinking at the moment. And also as an indicator, why do books on Leadership outsell Management titles? It’s way cooler to be a ‘Leader’, evidently.

But moving on from basic differentiators between management and leadership, what does the reading I’ve done and personal (sometimes bitter) experience tell me about leaders? I keep a yellow post-it as an aide memoire on my wall at work with some key bullets on this topic. Thus, and in no particular order, Leaders need to

  • Be Confident – a very important optical signal to the team
  • Be Decisive – this is key, wishy-washy does not cut the mustard
  • Share Credit – it’s a TEAM effort, even if it might not be in reality. Generosity works.
  • Take Blame – and then act to fix the issues. Don’t beat up your team in public.
  • Deliver a safe Psychological environment to the team – always say WE.
  • Make small gestures (like saying ‘thank you’, and pouring the coffee)
  • Be Visible (ideally) – visual signals are really important as is presence.
  • Think forward, you need to ‘see what’s coming’ before the next guy does
  • Be Empathetic – identify with other people

And that short list will have to suffice for now, before you start to nod off. Which ironically leads me to the final point which research suggests is key for leaders. They need to get enough sleep. Strange, but true. Leaders need to be alert, ‘on message’, have their antennae finely tuned and see trouble coming before it arrives. It’s pretty difficult to do this if the leader is – literally – falling asleep at the wheel, due to a less than optimal number of sleeping hours. All the writing on the subject says that a minimum eight hours sleep per night is needed, and it’s a recurring theme, so I’m inclined to believe it’s true. I don’t always manage it myself (of course) but it’s an aspiration and at least I know what I’m supposed to be doing.

So there you have it, a short and succinct ramble through the emergence of natural leadership, whether or not it’s needed, some differences between management and leadership and finally some of the traits of best of breed leaders. How many of those traits have you observed in people you have dealt with and have been led by? Does every pack actually need a leader? Worth thinking about…

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