The Curve of Leadership

Plowing ahead without continuing to assess others' reactions often leaves them on the sidelines during an improvement process.

Sometimes the shortest distance between current conditions and making better things happen is not a straight line, it's a curve. Certainly there are times when directed, get-aboard-the-train-or-get-off leadership makes maximum sense -– when crises or risks of dire consequences (injury, irreparable loss) loom. But decades of experience have shown this is not the most effective day-to-day leadership style for sustaining stellar performance.

Yet I've met numerous people who reflexively equate leadership as linear only -- being tough, forceful, assertive, unyielding, generating ideas and getting others to carry them out to the leader's specifications. That's certainly one type of leadership and, like any style, it has both strengths and limits. You likely are aware of the former. But weaknesses?

Straight-line approaches can translate into attempting to steamroll over others' concerns or objections; this, in turn, may block buy-in or result in deal-killing impatience. Pushing on others typically results in pushback. Plowing ahead without continuing to assess others' reactions often leaves them on the sidelines during an improvement process.

In a world where information and energies are complex and changing by the second, no one person can be all-knowing; hence, leadership can't be invested wholly in any one leader who by nature is limited in his/her abilities. Rather, dynamic and nimble companies need functional leadership that encompasses a range of critical functions.

Here's a sampling of these critical leadership ingredients, all of which blend into baking a high-performance pie:

  • Generating ideas, brainstorming solutions.
  • Energizing others towards moving beyond the status quo. Imbuing them with hope that real, substantial change is possible and they can accomplish this.
  • Building and maintaining trust. Encouraging others/providing a receptive atmosphere for them to generate ideas or surface blockages to improving communications and performance.
  • Developing a synchronized mission and objectives. Helping others align toward attaining organizational goals.
  • Persuading others, communicating two kinds of vision: vertical (where do we aim to be?) and horizontal (where do we stand compared to competitors? where are spots of high performance and resistance in our company?)
  • Heightening buy-in.
  • Futuring – developing a range of real-potential "what-if" scenarios.
  • Identifying the range of forces affecting current situations and applying this to plan most-sustainable change.
  • Executing – making change happen through following plans, anticipating obstacles, and lining up necessary elements.
  • Heading off destructive conflicts and turning existing conflicts into opportunities for creativity.
  • Sustaining work relationships through workflow dips and peaks.
  • Dealing most effectively with uncontrollable changes. Turning setbacks into opportunities.

And more. In fact, all of this is more than any one person can do, no matter how intelligent or skilled. So consider a curved approach to leadership rather than a linear one. Where possible, move from Directed and Driven/encapsulated-in-one-person leadership to a style that is Distributed and Diversified. For example, my wife, Susan, has been extremely active in leadership roles throughout the three public schools attended by our now-senior son. Some of these positions were elected, some appointed, and others volunteer. She's been involved in working through numerous critical decision points, helped raise significant sums to support the resource-starved public school, supported overly harried staff to in turn nurture students, and much more. Ironically, like many of those with a "softer" style, she doesn't think of herself as a strong leader. Yet the leadership functions she provides are critical to bringing people together initially, drawing out alternate ideas, encouraging involvement, strengthening buy-in, and solidifying commitment.

What she specifically does? She invites others in. Makes it safe for people to venture opinions. Helps them feel valued. Deals with issues while still sustaining relationships without rancor. Maintains peace and respect for everyone while streaming toward organizational goals. She's persistent, even in the face of dealing with other volunteers who have personally pressing time commitments -- and whose payment is not tangible. She acknowledges others' contributions, both in person and in public. She keeps going and doesn't give up when (not "if") things don't pan out according to plan. She accepts and helps others move past moments of discouragement so they don't give up. She listens to others patiently and draws out possible solutions. And she does this all with equanimity and charm.

While Susan fulfills several leadership functions, she -– and each of us -– can attain significant improvements only by working in combination with others who have complementary functional leadership strengths.

This curved leadership also applies to corporations. For best company health and performance, each organization should arrange for its daily minimum requirement of multiple leadership "vitamins." In this day, where companies are increasingly dispersed -– so no one person can truly control everything -– the most effective organizations develop a range of leaders and honor them. They focus on filling leadership functions, rather than just growing lone-wolf "too much the decider" agents. By spreading the leadership load throughout all levels of the company, threading through as many members as possible, they develop a creative, top-down/side-to-side/bottom-up, cracklingly interested and focused climate and culture.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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