50 Best Leadership Qualities
When thinking about the qualities of leaders, I have found it useful to distinguish between representative and generic qualities. By representative qualities I mean those that are required – and properly expected – in all members of your team. For example, all soldiers need courage, not just their commanders.
Therefore it is something of a misnomer to label it a ‘leadership’ quality. A military leader should, of course, exemplify courage by his willingness to lead from the front where occasion demands it. Courage will not make you a military leader, but you cannot be one without it.
Generic qualities in this distinction are those which are commonly associated more specifically with leadership. They give a ‘family likeness’ to all effective leaders, whatever their level, field or cultural background. At the head of this blog I give you an example: ‘calm judgment’. And sketch in for you shortly the top five or six generic qualities of leadership.
You can now see why leadership often springs from having a vocation or calling. That always lies in the field of human endeavor where your talents, interests, aptitudes and general personality find their optimum use in the service of others.
It is the good nurse or the good scientist, for example, who enters the frame for being considered as a leader. Thus, as a corollary, it is important to find your true vocation.
Some people have no difficulty in finding their vocation. The other day I was talking to a senior judge who told me that she knew at the age of twelve that she wanted to be a barrister.
For others – and I am among their number – it may be quite some time before you find the work for which you are best suited – or it finds you.
Leadership, then, is really a ‘second calling’ – one that emerges out of one’s original vocation in the fullness of time and one, incidentally, that may come to you as something of a surprise.
So you do need to keep searching in the early stages of your working life until you discover what the French call your métier – your true profession or trade.
Some generic qualities of leadership
The French author Marcel Proust once wrote: ‘The writer, in order to attain generality and, so far as literature can, reality, needs to have seen many churches in order to paint one church, and for the portrayal of a single sentiment, he requires many individuals.’
I have been lucky over a long career to meet many leaders in many different fields, and I have heard or read about a legion of other ones too. Certain personal qualities have begun to stand out in my mind as being common if not general or even universal.
They are both qualities that effective leaders tend to have and qualities that – globally – people now look for in their leaders.
When the author John Buchan, then Governor-General of Canada, gave what I regard as a great lecture on the subject of leadership at the University of St. Andrews in 1930, he offered his own list of leadership qualities, but wisely added: ‘We can make a list of the moral qualities of leaders but not exhaust them’ (my italics).
I agree with him. Therefore you should take the list that I offer you below as being indicative rather than exhaustive. It is open-ended. You are free to add or subtract. Here it is:
Toughness or demandingness and fairness
Warmth and humanity
Exercise 1: Leadership qualities
Before reading any further, take a piece of paper and write across the top the names of two individuals known to you personally and whom you regard as leaders.
See if you can explore the above qualities in them by giving them a mark out of ten for each quality. Can you think of some episode where a particular quality was exemplified?
Here are a few notes on each of the generic qualities that have emerged from my own mind. Please add any additional thoughts or comments that occur to you.
Can you think of any leader worthy of the name who lacks enthusiasm? Certainly, I can’t. That is why it is top of my generic qualities list.
For the Greeks, enthusiasm was a divine gift. The Greek word literally means to be possessed by a god – what we would call now to be inspired.
The symptoms of an enthusiastic person are well known: a lively or strong interest for a cause or activity, a great eagerness, an intense and sometimes even a passionate zeal for the work in hand.
You can see why Shakespeare in Henry IV identifies enthusiasm as ‘the very life-blood of our enterprise’. It is the life-blood of your enterprise too.
Hard on the heels of enthusiasm comes integrity. I referred to it in my first lecture on leadership, ‘Leadership in History’, when I was in the sixth form at school and since then I have never once spoken on leadership without mentioning integrity.
Field Marshal Lord Slim once defined integrity to me as ‘the quality which makes people trust you.’ Mutual trust between the leader and the led is absolutely vital: lose that and you have lost everything.
Moreover, it is very hard to re-establish it. As a Roman historian, Livy said, ‘Trust being lost, all the social intercourse of men is brought to nothing.’
Integrity, from the Latin integer, means literally wholeness: an integer is a whole number. But with reference to people, it signifies the trait that comes from a loyal adherence to values or standards outside yourself, especially the truth: it is a wholeness which stems from being true to truth.
We know what it means when people say of a scholar or artist that he or she has integrity. They do not deceive themselves or other people. They are not manipulators. As Oliver Cromwell once wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Subtlety may deceive you, integrity never will.’
The guiding star of truth
In a letter written from New York in 1944, J.B. Yeats shared these thoughts with his son, the poet W.B. Yeats:
The real leader serves truth, not people, not his followers, and he cares little for authority or for the exercise of power, excepting so far as they help him to serve truth, and we follow him because we too, when your attention is directed to it, would also serve truth, that being a fundamental law of human nature – however unfaithful to it we may often be when misled by passion or self-interest.
Such leaders continued Yeats, gain a ready audience:
Their command excites no anger since we are not brought face to face with an Ego. They and all of us are serving a mistress [the truth] who really issues the orders we obey.
Just why it is that people who have integrity in this sense create trust in others I shall leave you to reflect upon at your leisure. Certainly, we all know that a person who deliberately misleads us by telling lies sooner or later forfeits our trust.
There are situations in life which can test your integrity, sometimes to the uttermost. A person of integrity comes through such trials, tests, and temptations. Rudyard Kipling writes of such personal moral victory in his poem If, which lightly sketches integrity in outline:
Toughness or demandingness and fairness
As a leader, you need to be tough or demanding but fair. Leadership is not being popular; it is not about wanting to be liked by everyone. For leaders make demands; they set high standards, and they will not accept anything but the best. That isn’t always popular.
As Confucius commented long ago, ‘The best leader is easy to serve and difficult to please.’ Notice that where praise is given sparingly it is valued more. Indeed there is an Iranian proverb that says Too much praise is worse than an insult.
Toughness is indicative of more than being demanding in terms of the common task. Akin to resilience and firmness, it is the quality that enables you to withstand tension, strain or stress. To be firm means fixed and unshakeable, and often implies a deep commitment to a moral principle.
People look for this particular form of strength in a leader. As an Arab proverb puts it, ‘No strength within, no respect without’. St Augustine once prayed for a ‘heart of fire’ for humanity’s common purpose, a ‘heart of love’ to others, and to himself a ‘heart of steel’. All true leaders have that steel in their souls.
Personally, I hate war, but it is undeniable that we have learned a great deal about leadership with the experience of battle. Such crisis situations, where life and death are at stake – viewed over three thousand years and in every part of the world – are revealing about human nature, especially about what kind of leadership elicits the best response.
What is evident is that soldiers respond best to leaders who are neither harsh nor soft.
The leader who liked to be liked and the commander who was not a leader
The classic description of these types of leadership comes in Xenophon’s account of a military expedition of some 10,000 Greek mercenary soldiers who fought on one side in a Persian civil war and then made a famous 800 miles march through what is now Iraq and Turkey to freedom.
Xenophon, who had studied leadership with Socrates and later wrote the world’s first books on leadership, served on the campaign as a cavalry commander. Unsurprisingly, given the influence of Socrates as a teacher, Xenophon was an acute observer of the leadership abilities of the Greek generals.
Proxenus of the city of Boeotia was a very ambitious and well-educated young man who joined the Greek mercenary army in Persia in 40BC. He was in search of fame and fortune.
Though without any practical military experience – he had been tutored by an academic in military tactics – he secured office through his political contacts as one of the expedition’s six generals. Xenophon, who was invited by Proxenus to join the expedition to Persia, has left us this pen portrait of his friend and companion:
He was a good commander for people of a gentlemanly type, but he was not capable of impressing his soldiers with a feeling of respect or fear for him.
Indeed he showed more diffidence in front of his soldiers than his subordinates showed in front of him, and it was obvious that he was more afraid of being unpopular with his troops than his troops were afraid of disobeying his orders.
Xenophon has also left us a pen portrait of the veteran Spartan general Clearchus. In the crisis that followed the defeat of their patrons in the battle of Cunaxa outside Babylon, when the Greeks were faced with a choice between slavery or a long hazardous march through enemy-occupied territory to the Black Sea and freedom, it was to Clearchus that everyone looked – for he had that inner steel as well as the experience of having been in such a situation before.
He knew what to do. Yet Xenophon describes him as a harsh man; except when an army was in a crisis no one would voluntarily choose to serve with him. In other words, he was a commander but not a leader.
In the event, by an act of treachery, the Persians assassinated all the Greek generals and Xenophon, aged 26, was among the six elected by the soldiers to replace them. Needless to say, Xenophon aspired – not without some success – to be a great military leader.
Toughness and demandingness should always be expressed in the context of fairness: a true leader has no favorites. A former Royal Navy captain put it to me in a letter like this:
Justice or fairness is a necessary condition in all personal relations. Always honor the terms of the two-way contract that underpins any working relationship. Make sure that people are paid the correct amount and on time.
Warmth and Humanity
As a general principle, a ‘cold fish’ – meaning a totally unemotional or impassive person – does not make a good leader. For in all personal relations, be they professional or private, people do not respond well to a perceived or actual coldness in others. As the Chinese proverb says, ‘You can live with cold tea and cold rice but not with cold words.’
The warmth of feeling, general friendliness of attitude, and an unobtrusive solicitude for the welfare of individuals are all hallmarks of the good leader. Empathy is the power of entering into another’s mind and imaginatively experiencing (and so fully comprehending) the way things are for that person.
Empathy should lead to acts that show that you care. Caring here means taking seriously the welfare of others – your colleagues or companions in the common enterprise. Put their needs before your own.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from AD 160 to 180, was a world leader of his day. He was burdened with great responsibility. For much of his reign, he led his legions against the Germanic tribes, who were invading the Roman Empire from the north. By nature, he was a reflective thinker, a lover of practical wisdom.
His Meditations are still a classic: a collection of aphorisms and reflections are written down as much for his own guidance as a leader, as a book for others. Speaking to himself – and yet to all leaders – he writes: ‘Love those people heartily that it is your fortune to be engaged with’.
In the context of leadership, humility is best understood as a lack of arrogance. Arrogance is not an attractive attribute in anyone, let alone a leader.
Willingness to own up to one’s own mistakes or errors of judgment rather than to make others into scapegoats is one hallmark of humility. Domineering, over-assertive or tyrannical men don’t do that – they are always right even when their ship is sinking. Another important characteristic is open-mindedness to those views and opinions of others that challenge your own ideas or assumptions.
Lastly, the ability to continue to learn, change, grow until the end of your days is the blessing that humility – not the easiest yoke – will confer on you.
Any form of play-acting or hypocrisy is incompatible with humility. That is why a humble person never pretends to be better or worse, more important or less important than they really are. As Dag Hammarskjöld wrote: ‘Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation.’
Bear in mind also another useful distinction: between personality and character. Personality is the total impression that another person makes upon you – or you upon them.
Character, by contrast, is not something which is immediately apparent or felt. Only knowing another person over time will reveal if they possess moral principles or values.
You may have noticed that we call someone’s personality attractive or unattractive, but never good or bad. These moral terms we apply only to characters.
And because the character is essential to a true leader – more so than personality – morality is integral to leadership. Bad people may be found in leadership roles or offices, but it is an error to call them leaders.
A leader’s personality and character will breathe through all that they say and do. Who you are as a leader can be as important as what you do. A role without personality is empty but personality without a role is ineffective.
People expect to find in their leader a reflection of their own best qualities, especially those which characterize a good work in their field. To possess these representative qualities is a necessary condition for leading others. But on top of that, there are also some generic leadership qualities for you to think about.
Good leaders are enthusiasts. Can you think of any true leader you have met or read about who lacks enthusiasm?
Integrity means soundness or wholeness. A person of integrity adheres to moral principles whatever the cost. They do not lie, cheat or indulge in bribery. Integrity is the quality that makes people trust you – essential in a leader.
Leaders need to develop some steel within themselves, for in some contexts they need to be tough and demanding but fair. No strength within, no respect without.
Warmth and kindness – humanity – is a ‘leader-becoming’ quality.
Humility in a leader is an antidote to pride, arrogance, self-importance, and egoism.
What you have to know
‘There is a small risk that leaders will be regarded with contempt by those they lead if whatever they ask of others they show themselves best able to perform.’
The second main approach to understanding leadership focuses upon the situation. Taken to extremes, this school declares there is no such thing as a born leader: it all depends upon the situation. Some situations will evoke leadership from one person, others will bring it out in another – therefore it is useless discussing leadership in general terms.
This ‘situational approach’, as it is called, holds that it is always the situation which determines who emerges as the leader and what ‘style of leadership’ he or she has to adopt.
Who becomes a leader of a particular group engaging in a particular activity and what the characteristics are in the given case, are a function of the specific situation.
To illustrate this theory, let us imagine some survivors of a shipwreck landing on a tropical island. The soldier in the party might take command if natives attacked them, the builder might organize the work of erecting houses, and the farmer might direct the labor of growing food. In other words, leadership would pass from member to member according to the situation.
Note that ‘situation’ in this context means primarily the task of the group. If an airplane crashes in a remote jungle the person who takes command for the survival operation might not be the captain of the aircraft but the person most qualified for the job. Change the situation, and you change the leader.
The three kinds of authority at work
This ‘horses for courses’ approach has some obvious advantages. It emphasizes the importance of knowledge relevant to a specific problem situation – ‘authority flows to the one who knows’, as one writer put it. There are broadly three kinds of authority at work:
the authority of position – office title, badges of rank, appointment
the authority of personality – the natural qualities of influence
the authority of knowledge – technical, professional.
Whereas leaders in the past tended to rely upon the first kind of authority – that is, they exercised mastery as the appointed boss – today leaders have to draw much more upon the second and third kinds of authority.
But technical knowledge is not everything. It is especially important in the early stages of your career when people tend to be specialists.
As your career broadens out, however, more general skills – such as leadership, communication and decision making – come into their own. You need to acquire these general skills, for technical knowledge alone will not make you into a leader.
How far are the general skills of leadership transferable from one working situation to another? The skills are certainly transferable, but often the people are not.
For one reason, they do not have sufficient technical or professional knowledge required for another field. Like courage in the case of the soldier, such knowledge and experience do not make you into a leader, but you cannot be one without it.
That does not mean that leaders cannot change fields (e.g. industry for politics) as opposed to making major changes within fields (e.g. becoming managing director of an electronics company after running a car assembly plant) – but it implies that they will not be successful unless they can quickly learn the essentials or principles of the new industry or occupation.
Within a given field, such as a manufacturing industry, there are other situational determinants besides the type of product. Size – small, medium or large – is one factor in the equation.
Some industry leaders are attracted naturally to situations where a company needs ‘turning around’ after a story of decline and loss of morale. Others prefer a lively, technologically advanced company going for rapid growth.
The need for flexibility
Even within a given field – or within a particular organization within it – the situation varies. Some people argue that such changes require a change of leader.
A company in growth may need a bustling, entrepreneurial leader; once it has established its product lines and market share that person may get frustrated and should be replaced by a different sort of person.
The answer, of course, is to develop as much flexibility as you can within your limitations. However, it is always hard to know what those limitations are. It is easy to make assumptions about them which turn out to be unfounded.
Most people discover as they grow older that they are more suited by aptitudes, interests, and temperament to lead in some fields rather than others. Some characteristic working situations, for example, call for the speed of reaction or swift apprehension.
Some contingencies cannot be foreseen. War provides plenty of examples of such occasions when quickness of thought is essential for success. In conversation with Las Casas one day, Napoleon reflected on the rarity of this ability to react swiftly in sudden emergencies: ‘As to moral courage, I have rarely met with the two-o’clock-in-the-morning kind:
I mean unprepared courage, that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion; and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision’.
No victim of false modesty, Napoleon did not hesitate to say that he was himself eminently endowed with this ‘two-o’clock-in-the-morning’ courage and that he had met few persons equal to himself in this respect.
A major implication of the situational approach, as I have already suggested, is that you should select the field in which you wish to exercise leadership with care. Think of that field as being your first vocation.
Usually, interests, aptitude, and temperament are sufficiently good guides. With my poor aptitude for music, for example, I would be wasting my time to aspire to conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
Once you have chosen your field, however, you should aim to develop maximum flexibility within it, so that you are the master at reading the changes in situations and responding with the appropriate leadership style.
At the same time as you are growing in leadership, your technical knowledge and experience in that working field should be widening and deepening as well.
What you have to do
‘Not the cry but the flight of the wild duck leads the flock to fly and follow.’
The third line of thinking and research about leadership focused on the group. This ‘group approach’ tends to see leadership in terms of functions which meet group needs: what has to be done. In fact, if you look closely at matters involving leadership, there are always three elements or variables:
the leader – qualities of personality and character
the situation – partly constant; partly varying
the group – the followers: their needs and values.
The third school looked at leadership from the perspective of the group.
Group personality and group needs
Working groups are, according to my theory, more than the sum of their parts: they have a life and identity of their own. All such groups, providing they have been together for a certain amount of time, develop their own unique ethos. I call this phenomenon group personality – a phrase borrowed from British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.
In practice, the phenomenon of group personality means that what works in one group may not work in its apparent twin group within the same organization.
In order for such a corporate personality to emerge, of course, a group has to be in the formative stage for some time. Then its unique character emerges. It acquires something like a collective memory. Especially when groups are in their formative stages, leaders can do a great deal to set the tone of this distinctive nature.
The other half of the theory stresses what groups share in common as compared to their uniqueness. They are analogous to individuals in this respect: different as we are in terms of appearance and personality, we share in common our needs – at midnight all of us usually begin to feel tired; at breakfast time we are hungry, and so on. According to my model, there are three areas of need present in working groups.
1 To achieve the common task.
2 To be held together or to maintain itself as a cohesive unity.
3 The needs which each individual brings with them into a group.
One of the reasons why a group comes together is that there is a task which one person cannot do on their own. But does the group as a whole experience the need to complete the task within the natural time limits for it?
A human being is not very aware of a need for food if they are already well fed, and so one would expect a group to be relatively oblivious of any sense of need if its task is being successfully performed.
In this case, the only sign of a need having been met is the satisfaction or elation which overtakes the group in its moments of triumph – happiness which as social beings we count among our deepest joys.
Before such a fulfillment, however, many groups pass through a ‘black night of despair’ when it may appear that the group will be compelled to disperse without achieving what it set out to do.
If the members are not committed to the common goal, this will be a comparatively painless event; but if they are, the group will exhibit various degrees of anxiety and frustration.
Scapegoats for the corporate failure may be chosen and punished; reorganizations might take place and new leaders emerge. Thus, adversity reveals the nature of group life more clearly than prosperity. In it, we may see signs or symptoms of the need to get on effectively with whatever the group has come together to do.
Group maintenance needs
This is not easy to perceive as the task need; as with an iceberg, much of the life of any group lies below the surface. The distinction that the task need concerns things, while the group maintenance need involves people, does not help very much.
Again, it is best to think of groups which are threatened – from without by forces aimed at their disintegration or from within by disruptive people or ideas.
We can then see how they give priority to maintaining themselves against these external or internal pressures, sometimes showing great ingenuity in the process.
Many of the written or unwritten rules of the group are designed to promote this unity and to maintain cohesiveness at all costs. Those who rock the boat, or infringe group standards and corporate balance, may expect reactions varying from friendly indulgence to downright anger.
Instinctively, a common feeling exists that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, that good relationship, desirable in themselves, are also essential means towards the shared end.
I decided to replace the term ‘group maintenance’ with ‘team maintenance’ when the time came to apply theory to training leaders. It sounded just a little less like jargon. The earliest teams in the ancient language of England were sets of draught animals pulling together.
Today, of course, a ‘team’ is our most common word for a group of people who form a side in a game or sport. So today everyone knows what a team is. The words ‘group’ and ‘team’ are not exact synonyms; all teams are groups, but not all groups are teams.
In the context of work today, ‘team’ is a better word than ‘group’. For the key characteristic of a team is a differentiation of roles in relation to a common goal.
The functions of the football goalkeeper, for example, differ from those of the fullbacks or midfield team players, yet all eleven members of the team, whatever their roles, share a common purpose and a common goal.
Thirdly, individuals bring into the group their own needs – not just the physical ones for food and shelter, which are largely catered for by the payment of wages these days, but also their psychological needs: recognition, a sense of doing something worthwhile; status;
the deeper needs to give to and receive from other people in a working situation. These personal needs are perhaps more profound than we sometimes realize.
These needs spring from the depths of our common life as human beings. They may attract us to – or repel us from – any given group. Underlying them all is the fact that people need each other, not just to survive but to achieve and develop a personality.
As the African proverb says, ‘It takes a whole village to grow a person’. This growth occurs in a whole range of social activities – friendship, marriage, neighborhood – but inevitably work groups are extremely important because so many people spend so much of their waking time in them.
It is worth reflecting for a moment upon the importance of that distinction between group and individual, as opposed to allowing them to be blurred together as people or ‘human relations’ or (even worse) the ‘socio-emotional area’.
Of course, individuality and individualism can be taken too far. For, as indicated above, we do not become persons except in relation to others.
In some cultures at certain times, there has been a tendency to subordinate the individual to the group. The implicit assumption when that happens is that groups are stronger, wiser and sometimes even more creative than the individuals in it. ‘What the group wants’ becomes the ultimate court of appeal.
Although there are cultural differences of emphasis, however, leaders should always be aware of both the group and each individual and seek to harmonize them in the service of the third factor – the common task.
Understanding the individual
Individual needs are especially important in relation to motivation, which is closely connected with leadership. One of the things that leaders are supposed to do is to motivate people by a combination of rewards and threats – the carrot-and-stick approach.
Yet, according to another body of theory, you and I motivate ourselves to a large extent by responding to inner needs. As a leader, you must understand these needs in individuals and how they operate so that you can work with the grain of human nature and not against it.
Maslow makes two interesting points about these needs. First, if one of our stronger needs is threatened we jump down the steps to defend it. You do not worry about status, for example, if you are starving.
Therefore if you appear to threaten people’s security by your proposed changes as a leader, you should expect a stoutly defended response.
Secondly, a satisfied need ceases to motivate. When one area of need is met, the person concerned becomes aware of another set of needs within him or her.
These in turn now begin to motivate him. There is obviously much in this theory – when the physiological and security needs, in particular, have been satisfied, they do not move us so strongly. How far this principle extends up the scale is a matter for discussion.
Maslow made another significant contribution to understanding individual needs by reiterating the distinction between instrumental and expressive behavior. Much of what we do is to meet our needs: it is a means or instrument towards an end. But a person also does or says things to express what he or she is or has become.
A skater or a dancer, for instance, is expressing themselves. This perception can help us to understand why others are doing things. You could also look at leadership as both instrumental – a means of meeting task, team and individual needs – and also expressive of all that you are and can become in terms of personality, character, and skill.
The Three Circles model
It is a way of suggesting that the Three Circles form a universal model. In whatever field you are, at whatever level of leadership – team leader, operational leader or strategic leader – there are three things that you should always be thinking about: task, team, and individual. Leadership is essentially an other-centered activity – not a self-centered one.
The Three Circles model is simple but not simplistic or superficial. Keeping in mind those three primary colors, we can make an analogy with what is happening when we watch a television programme: the full-color moving pictures are made up of lots of those three primary and (in the overlapping areas) three secondary colors.
It is only when you stand well back from the complex moving and talking a picture of life at work that you begin to see the underlying pattern of the Three Circles. Of course, they are not always as balanced and clear as the model suggests, but they are nonetheless there.
Many of an individual’s needs – such as the need to achieve and the social need for human companionship – are met in part by participating in working groups. But an individual can also run the danger of being exploited in the interests of the task and dominated by the group in ways that trespass upon one’s personal freedom and integrity.
It is a fundamental corollary of the Three Circles model that each of the circles must always be seen in relation to the other two. As a leader, you need to be constantly aware of what is happening in your group in terms of the Three Circles.
You can imagine one circle as a balloon getting bigger (better) and another shrinking, or you can visualize the situation as if one circle is completely eclipsed or blacked out.
Exercise: The Three Circles model
1 Can you give an example from your experience where the team circle has been exceptionally good– real team spirit, plenty of synergy, excellent personal relations and good communication – enabling the team to deal positively with task factors that would have defeated a less capable group?
What has been the effects of such a group on the individual within it – think of a particular case known to you.
Techcom, a small firm of 150 people, had built up excellent working relations and morale was extremely high. Management and employees trusted each other and liked working together; they believed in the future of their industry and wanted to expand. Then they were hit by a downturn in the domestic market and some fierce competition from China, India, and Korea.
The employees volunteered to take a cut in their wages; the management promised there would be no redundancies if they could help it. Everyone redoubled their efforts. Soon business improved again and they were back in profit.
2 Add now an example where an individual has effectively influenced the task circle and also benefited the team as a whole.
Outstanding examples of the influence of the individual on the other two circles are often provided by two kinds of members –leaders and creative thinkers. These may be united in the same person, often called an entrepreneur, or they may exist separately. Certainly, every team needs its creative thinkers, whether they are managers or not.
In order to meet the three areas of need, as we have seen, certain functions have to be performed. A function may be defined as the proper or characteristic action of a person or thing. It is often one of a group of related actions, each contributing to a large action.
For example, I write with a pen and in writing this sentence, both hand and eyes are fulfilling their normal and characteristic functions to contribute to a single activity. In the context of the larger activity of leading, such functions as defining the task and planning are clearly required.
Assemble a group of children in the playground with a task to perform, with or without appointing a leader, and you should be able to observe some of these functions being performed – or not performed, as the case may be.
The generic role of leader
So far we have only agreed that there are three overlapping areas of need present in all working groups and that in order to meet them certain key functions have to be performed.
The next step is the idea that these functions hang together in a set: together they form the core of the generic role of leader. The discovery of this generic role crowned a quest by thinkers that began long ago in ancient Athens and China and has been pursued intently in recent times.
Expressed in its simplest form, this generic leader’s role consists of:
The generic role here is expressed in three very broad functions. It can then be broken down further into more specific functions, such as planning and evaluating. But you should notice that these functions – and the others explored in Part Two – are not assignable to any one circle: they have effects for good or bad on all three.
For example, planning looks on the surface like a task function. But there is nothing like a bad plan to disintegrate a team, lower morale and frustrate individuals. Planning hits all Three Circles: the model is a unity, or, more accurately, a diversity-in-unity.
Teams which come together to pursue a self-chosen task, such as trade unions or sports clubs, tend to elect their own leaders, who are responsible ultimately to the team. Where tasks are given to the team, on the other hand, the leader tends to be appointed by higher authority and sent to it as part of the package deal.
In this case, the leader is accountable first to the appointing authority and only secondly – if at all – to the team. He or she is accountable for all Three Circles.
That does not mean, of course, that the leader is going to provide all the functions needed in the three areas – there are far too many required for any one person to do that, especially in larger groups.
If leaders exercise the art of leadership properly, they will generate a sense of responsibility in all, so that members naturally want to respond to the three sets of need.
But the appointed or elected leader alone is accountable at the end of the day. It is the leader who should expect to be dismissed or resign if the task is not achieved, or the group disintegrates into warring factions, or the individuals lapse into sullen apathy. That is why leaders usually get paid more than the team members.
Realities of command
Understanding your position as the leader in relation to the Three Circles is vitally important. You should see yourself as half-in and half-out. There should be some social distance between you and the team, but not too much.
The reason for maintaining this element of distance is not to enhance your mystique, it is because you may have to make decisions or act toughly in the task area which may cause emotional reactions to being directed at you from the team and the individuals who face, in consequence, some unwelcome change.
You have weakened yourself if you are on too friendly terms, or rather you have exposed yourself to pressures – ‘we didn’t expect that from you’ – which you may not be able to handle.
There is a particular problem for leaders who are elected or appointed from among their colleagues and remain with the same team. To exchange the close, friendly relationship of colleagues for those of a leader and subordinates is not easy. That has been recognized for many years.
When the Roman Army appointed a man to be a centurion he was always given a century of 100 men in another legion. The principle is a sound one.
You can begin to see why a degree of self-sufficiency is important for a leader. Leadership is not about popularity, as I have already said, but because leaders tend to have social, even gregarious, natures, they can find the negative reactions that come their way hard to endure.
But what matters, in the long run, is not how many rounds of applause a leader receives but how much respect he or she gains, and that is never achieved by being ‘soft’ or ‘weak’ in the task, team or individual circles.
The leader’s social needs can be met partly by relations with his or her team, but it is always lonely at the top.
He or she can never fully share the burden with those who work for them or open their heart about their own doubts, fears, and anxieties; that is best done with other leaders on their own level and preferably from outside their own organizations.
Women as leaders
Leadership is not male, military or Western. The unit in leadership is the person, not a man or woman. The only determinant in leadership is: who is the best person to fulfill the role of leader in this work context. One outstanding woman leader shared with me her personal philosophy of leadership – I cannot think of a better one:
My obligation as a manager is to manage in a way that enables the needs of the business to be met and the joint objectives of my colleagues and myself to be achieved.
In bringing this about I have the responsibility to see that the people responsible to me who are fulfilling the task have the opportunity to extract satisfaction and fun in doing it.
Yes, I do mean fun. Difficult tasks do not preclude enjoyment and fun: when the fun goes out of a job, one should seriously consider whether one is equipped to cope – being a manager today certainly requires a sense of humor.
The occasions on which I have gained most personal satisfaction from heading up a team have been when the going has been really tough and yet one is conscious of the enormous support and enthusiasm from that team of people.
I believe, however, that the effort which has to be made by every member of the team in order to achieve that unity of purpose is far greater than any demands which the task in itself could present. It is also far more rewarding.
If we try to evaluate that effort against the demands of the task, it is like trying to judge whether we would have recovered from pneumonia if we had not taken the unpleasant drugs. We will never know but we are thankful to be still alive.
Creating a working environment which gives satisfaction to those operating in it is an objective in itself. This does not imply it should be an easy environment but it should be a rewarding one in terms of job satisfaction.
Leadership is a mixture of enthusiasm, striving to achieve a goal, maximizing resources and enthusing others which adds to the appeal of the successful manager.
A definition which I probably share with many other managers is what true leadership is not about – it is not about power; it is about a person’s legitimate right to lead through example and self-discipline. Most of us, at least, recognize it, admire it, and respond when we see it displayed.
Remember that – contrary to what some people teach – there is no such thing as ‘instant leadership’. You need to be patient with yourself, but never give up.
Improvement is always possible. Like learning a new language, your conscious efforts to study and practice the principles of action-centered leadership may seem awkward and full of mistakes at first. But that is to be expected, for art lies in perfecting our natural gifts.
Eventually, these efforts will drift into your subconscious mind and continue to influence your attitudes and actions without you being aware that they are doing so. And one day, people will say that you are a ‘born leader’. Little do they know!
After a concert, an enthusiastic member of the audience came up to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler and said, ‘I would give my life to play the violin like you did this evening.’ ‘I did’, replied Kreisler.
CHECKLIST: THE THREE CIRCLES MODEL
Have you been able to give specific examples from your own experience on how the Three Circles or areas of need – task, group, and individual – interact upon each other?
Can you identify your natural bias:
You tend to put the task first and are low on team and individual
For you the team seems more important; you value happy relationships more than productivity or individual job satisfaction. Individuals are supremely important to you; you always put the individual before the task or the team for that matter.
You tend to over-identify with the individual You can honestly say you maintain a balance, and have feedback from superiors, colleagues, and subordinates to prove it
Do you vary your social distance from the team according to a realistic appreciation of the factors in the situation?
Can you illustrate that from experience?
Pulling the threads together
The discovery of the generic role of leader, as outlined in this book, has proved to be incredibly useful to those who want to improve their capabilities as leaders.
In the leadership field, it is a breakthrough comparable in a modest way to the discoveries of Newton or Einstein in their field of physics. Like their theoretical advances, the generic role of leadership has proved to be rich in practical applications, especially the fields of leadership training.
For many the word ‘leadership’ implies that one person is the dictator: he or she makes all the decisions and does all the work of leadership. That is wrong. In groups of more than two or three, there are too many functions required for any one person to do it all themselves. The good leader evokes or draws forth leadership from the group.
He or she works as a senior partner with other members to achieve the task, build the team and meet individual needs. The ways in which this sharing takes place are so rich and varied that they cannot be prescribed. But a leader who does not capitalize on the natural response of people to the three areas hardly deserves the name.
Most practical leaders will accept that other members can help them to maintain the team or motivate and develop fellow individuals. But what about the task?
And, in particular, what about decision making and problem-solving? For these are key activities in the task area. It is useful for you as a leader to know the options open to you in decision making or problem-solving.
At one end of the continuum, the leader has virtually all the cake: he or she issues an order or command. The next point on the line is where the leader says what is to be done but gives reasons; persuades. The remaining three points on the continuum – the different shares of the cake – are fairly self-evident.
You should always bear in mind an important general principle: that the more you move to the right of the continuum or scale, the better, for the more that people share in the decisions which affect their working life the more they are motivated to carry them out. And as a leader, you are in the business of being a motivator.
But there are factors which you should take into account in deciding where to decide. These include the situation, especially such variables as the time available and the complexity or specialized nature of the problem itself.
Thus, the model can help you to develop a satisfactory understanding of why leadership takes different shapes in organizations which work characteristically in crisis situations – those in which by definition time is in very short supply and where there is a life-or-death dimension, such as the emergency or military services, civil airlines and operating theatre teams.
Here, leaders make the decisions themselves and the group is trained to respond promptly to them without argument. Research at the scenes of road accidents and forest fires confirms that people expect such firm and definite leadership from one person – they need it.
There are other such variables as the organization (values, tradition) and the group (knowledge, experience) which you should also take into account in deciding where to decide. You should always aim to be the main consistent as a person so that people know where they stand with you – but when it comes to decision making, infinitely flexible.
Developing your own style of leadership
Much argument has raged over ‘styles of leadership’. In the early days, these were labeled by American theorists as ‘autocratic’, ‘democratic’ or ‘laissez-faire’ (or ‘do-as-you-please’). That kind of simplistic thinking still lingers on.
Decision making and style should not be confused. Style implies much more than that. Nor is it possible to alter your ‘style’, which is an expression of yourself from situation to situation – even if you could – without running the risk of insincerity.
You do not want to be a manipulator. As you will have guessed, I do not find the division into various labeled ‘styles’ of leadership very helpful. It does not form part of the functional leadership.
Indeed I am very wary of thinking too much about one’s style as a leader at all. For I believe that style should not be something you arrive at consciously; it should come about naturally or subconsciously as you master the functions or skills of leadership.
‘I should like to put on record’, wrote the famous author Samuel Butler, ‘that I never took the smallest pains with my style, have never thought about it, and do not know or want to know whether it is a style at all or whether it is not, as I believe and hope, just common, simple straightforwardness’.
Once your personal style has developed, it will be as difficult to change as your handwriting. It will be your unique way of doing what is common – the truth of leadership, but the truth through the prism of your personality. As a Frenchman in the eighteenth century said, ‘These things are external to the man; style is the person.’
Reflections of a cricket captain
Cricket is a team game, but as such, it is unusual in being made up of intensely individual duels. Personal interest may conflict with that of the team: you may feel exhausted, and yet have to bowl; you may be required to sacrifice your wicket going for quick runs. And these conflicting tensions can easily give rise to the occupational vice of cricket – selfishness.
The drive for personal success is vital to the team. Without it, a player can fail to value himself and assume a diffidence which harms the team. He might, for example, under-rate the importance to his confidence – and thus to the team’s long-term interest – of his occupying the crease for hours, however boringly, in a search for form.
And I have seen a whole side in flight from selfishness, with batsmen competing to find more ridiculous ways of getting themselves out in order to prove that they weren’t selfish.
It is the captain’s job to coax the happy blend of self-interest and team interest from his players. Influencing the balance between individual and group.
Thus he enables the group to create and sustain its identity without a deadening uniformity, and to enable the individuals to express themselves as fully as possible without damaging the interest of the whole.
Drawing upon the qualities approach
From the new perspective of the generic role, the qualities traditionally associated with leadership can be seen in a new light. They can be interpreted as helping (or hindering) the three areas of need – achieving the task, building or maintaining the team, and developing the individual.
First, you should apply the Three Circles to all those lists of qualities in order to pick out all the essential ones – those that can be developed. Some qualities will begin to disclose functions and specific behaviors, while some functions and outward actions will imply or express qualities.
Some qualities are especially important because they apply to all Three Circles – enthusiasm is an excellent example. Not all enthusiasts are leaders, but if you have the gift of enthusiasm you almost always will spark it off in other people. It produces a greater commitment to the task, creates team spirit and enthuses the individual.
Other qualities are more latent. They can be called out and express themselves in behavior in any of the three areas. Moral courage and humility, to give two examples, are both required in certain situations. But it is important to be as specific as possible in defining when they are needed.
Humility may seem an odd word because it implies to many people cringing self-abasement quite at odds with the self-confidence, even egoism, which marks many leaders. Not so when you translate it into terms of task, team, and individual.
As Aristotle taught long ago, a virtue rests somewhere between two extremes. If you use any quality to excess, or without the moderating influences of balancing qualities, it can become a liability.
Certainly too much humility – or rather humility of the counterfeit sort – is fatal to leadership, for it robs you of the proper self-confidence you should have.
Lady Violet Bonham Carter, a friend of Winston Churchill, once said to him: ‘Winston, you do need to remember that you are just a worm, like the rest of us.’ Churchill thought for a moment and then with a chuckle replied: ‘Yes, I am a worm – but I do believe that I am a glow worm!’
Obviously, it would take up too much time and space here to work through all the qualities most frequently mentioned with regard to leadership, seeing them as aptitudes to acquiring or providing certain functional responses – but, taking humility as an example.
Humility in action
‘A sense of humility is a quality I have observed in every leader whom I have deeply admired,’ wrote Eisenhower. ‘I have seen Winston Churchill with humble tears of gratitude on his cheeks as he thanked people for their help to Britain and the Allied cause’.
He continued: ‘My own conviction is that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he has himself selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs.
I am aware that some popular theories of leadership hold that the top man must always keep his “image” bright and shining. I believe, however, that in the long run fairness and honesty, and a generous attitude towards subordinates and associates, pay off.’
You can begin to see how the qualities and functions of leadership fit together like hand in glove. Functions are the active verbs that tell you what to do; qualities are the adverbs that inform how you do it. As the Chinese say, ‘The wings carry the bird; the bird carries the wings.’
The different levels of leadership
Leadership exists on three broad levels:
Team Operational Strategic
Leading a team or small group of about five to fifteen or sixteen people.
Leading a significant part of the business with more than one team leader reporting to you.
Leading the whole organization.
The same generic role – symbolized by the Three Circles model – is present in each level. What differs with level is complexity. For example, planning is relatively simple at team level compared to the kind of strategic planning that the chief executive officer of a large organization needs to deliver.
‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’, wrote Emerson. It used to be assumed all that was needed was a great strategic leader. This is not true. What all organizations need is the excellence of leadership at all levels – team, operational and strategic – and good teamwork between the levels of responsibility.
Leadership and values
Is there not a difference between good leaders and leaders for good?
The original Three Circles model spoke only about needs. But it is impossible to keep values out of the picture, even if anyone wanted to do so. You have values as well as needs and they play a vital part in your decisions.
Actually, the relationship between values and needs is very close – we need what we value; we value what we need. But they are different. Good and bad, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are not needs in common sense but they do affect conduct.
You may think this is a philosophical point, not a practical one. But the best leaders have something of the philosopher in them.
The fact that we are valuing humans as well as needing humans has implications which are best understood with reference again to the Three Circles model. Viewed through the prism of values, we have to search out answers to the following questions:
Why is this task worthwhile? What is its value to society?
How is that value measured?
What is the commonly accepted framework of values – including ethics – that holds this group together?
Do I share the same values as this group? Is the task worthwhile in my eyes?
Some people can do this kind of valuing arithmetic quite easily for themselves. But you as the leader will have to show awareness of the values of the common enterprise and interpret them for people both inside the group and outside it. Task, team, and individual have to be related in values as well as in needs.
That is why true leadership has an inescapable moral, or even spiritual, dimension. Without it, some people may call you a good leader in the technical sense of the word – but you will not be a leader for good.
The Three Circles model in its active form serves as a catalyst. It blends together invisibly the three main approaches to understanding leadership – qualities, situational and group or functional – into one musically integrated whole.
A leader is the kind of person (qualities), with the appropriate knowledge (situational) who is able to provide the necessary skills (functions) to enable a group to achieve its task, to hold it together as a cohesive team and to motivate and develop individuals – and he or she does so in partnership with the right level of participation of other members of the group or organization.
Now, this cumbersome sentence is clearly not meant to stand alone as a definition. But it is a way in which I can pull together the threads for you.
CHECKLIST: ARE YOU CLEAR ABOUT YOUR ROLE AS LEADER?
Do you habitually involve your team in decisions which affect their working life? More widely, do you involve team members in helping you to fulfill your generic role in achieving the task?
Can you see now how qualities color and inform functions?
And how performing functions with growing skill develops your qualities?
What 4 values do ‘task’ in your field honor and serve.
Do you want to be both a good leader (effective, skillful) and a leader for good – one who makes a positive difference to others?
A log of wood may lie in the river for years but it never becomes a crocodile, says a trenchant African proverb. Many people are promoted to the role of team leader but they lack both leadership ability and leadership training: they become logs, not crocodiles.
You need to fulfill – to master – the generic role. Your style, which is an expression of you, will then emerge naturally as you apply yourself to the simple functions of leadership. For leadership does consist mainly in doing some relatively simple and straightforward things, and doing them extremely well.
Whenever possible, open the door for others in the team to have an input into decisions which affect their working lives – especially those involving significant change. They will reward you with a greater commitment to outcomes.
Leadership exists on three broad levels: team, operational and strategic. You should aim at excellence in the role of team leader, but also excellence as a subordinate to the operational leader and excellence as a colleague to your fellow team leaders and support staff.
At whatever level of leadership you find yourself, you should think and communicate about the task in terms of values as well as needs. Then the common purpose will tend to be in harmony with the values of your team and all the individuals in the organization – including your own.
Leadership is a form of ‘truth through personality’. The truth, in this case, is the generic role of leader. Put that first, and only view yourself – your qualities of personality and character – in the light of that role.
DEVELOPING YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS
The next eight blogs focus on the main practical functions that you will certainly have to do or manage as a leader. They are deliberately not grouped under task, team, and individual, for you, should constantly remember that the circles overlap: therefore any function will affect all three.
For instance, planning may seem to be a task function initially, but there is nothing like a bad plan to break up group unity or frustrate the individual. The functions are the white and black keys on a piano: they will have to be played in different sequences and combined in chords if you want to make music.
By the time you have finished reading and working on Part Two you should:
Be able to identify clearly the main functions or principles of leadership in the three areas and have a good idea of how they manifest themselves in practice. Know what constitutes skill in providing that function in certain kinds of situation.
Be able to establish the abilities that you need to develop in yourself if you are going to be successful in providing those functions over a long and varied career.
Defining the task Keep the general goal in sight while tackling daily tasks.’
Your primary responsibility as a leader is to ensure that your group achieves its common task. Leadership is sometimes defined as getting other people to do what you want to do because they want to do it. I do not agree.
If it is your task, why should anyone help you to achieve it? It has to be a common task, one which everyone in the group can share because they see that it has value for the organization or society and – directly or indirectly – for themselves as well.
Remember that achieving the task is your principal means of developing high morale and meeting individual needs. What you do (or fail to do) in the task area is bound to affect the other two circles. So you should bear those two spheres in mind when you commit yourself and the group to task action.
As the leader, you cannot perform all the functions yourself. The group is not a flock of sheep – passive, walking lumps of mutton – with yourself as the human shepherd.
They can help you and you can help them in pursuit of the common goal in various ways. The group members have energy, enthusiasm, experience, knowledge, ability or skill, and often creative ideas, to contribute to the key task functions.
The actual technologies involved in the task will obviously vary from group to group. But it is possible to pick out some general functions that have to be fulfilled in any working group if it is going to be successful. Inevitably without the ‘clothes’ of a particular business upon them, these functions will look rather naked, but they are the essential raw materials of leadership.
Be clear about your task
You may have noted already that ‘task’ is a fairly general word. It means a work required by an employer or a situation. Tasks come in different shapes and sizes. They are also often gift-wrapped in misleading terms.
The leader, either on his or her own or with others, may have to bend their analytical powers of mind to penetrate the core of the task. One vital question is, ‘How will we know when we have succeeded?’ If that question cannot be answered it is usually a sign that the task is not yet clear enough.
You can visualize tasks in terms of different sizes. Personally, I find it useful to distinguish between purpose, aims, and objectives. Others prefer to make a rough distinction between ‘short-term’ and ‘long-term’ objectives.
The dictionary will not help you here: the English language uses such words rather loosely. It is obvious, however, that there is a difference between the broader, less defined ‘aim’ and the more tangible or definite ‘objective’.
I shall define the terms objective, aim and purpose below but, firstly, the following example may help to illustrate the differences between these types of task. It shows what is involved – and what to avoid – in communicating the objective.
Defining the task is not something you have to do only at the beginning of an enterprise – confusion about the end of a task can soon invade a group or organization. So you should be ready to define the end the team or any given individual is presently working towards, whenever the need arises.
Purpose Aims Objectives
The overarching, general or integrating task of the group or organization.
Your defined purpose answers the why questions – ‘Why are we in business?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’ It can signify, too, the content of value or meaning in what you are doing.
Human nature craves meaning, and so if your purpose connects with personal and moral values you will not find it difficult to generate a sense of purpose in your team – and here purpose means energy. Your team organization will be underway, like a ship at sea.
The purpose is not the same as vision. A vision is a mental picture of what you want the team or the organization to look like or be in, say, three years’ time.
You can break purpose down into aims, which are open-ended but directional. ‘To become a better violinist’ is an aim. You can have several – ‘to improve my skills as a cook’, for another example.
But you shouldn’t have too many, for your time and resources are limited. And that is true of teams and organizations. So once you have identified purpose choose aims carefully.
Objectives are far more tangible, definite, concrete and time-bounded. The word comes from a shortening of the military phrase ‘objective point’.
A familiar picture-word or metaphor for the objective is a target, originally the mark at which archers shot their arrows. A target is tangible and visible. You can clearly see the arrows sticking in the outer and inner rings of the bullseye.
A goal is another such picture-word. A football match takes place within clearly-defined limits of space and time; players can see instantly if they score a goal. If they are frustrated, they can go and kick the goalposts!
To score goals in a match or to reach the finishing line in a marathon race calls for prolonged effort and hardship, and those overtones often color the use of the word ‘goal’ in ordinary working life.
Always remember that an objective should be tangible, concrete, limited in time; an aim is less defined but is still fairly substantial rather than abstract, but a purpose may be couched in general or value terms.
The reason why
The apparently quite simple behavior of a leader telling a group what to do in fact discloses several distinct levels of mental ability. These cannot be directly associated with the levels of leadership, incidentally, although there ought to be some correlation between them. These can be identified for you, along with some common mistakes to avoid.
Perhaps the key one for you to focus upon first is the ability to break down the general into the particular. Aristotle taught his pupil, the future Alexander the Great, the simple lesson of how to take a general intention and turn it into a specific objective. (That is why Alexander was able to conquer the known world!
Unfortunately, he eventually ran out of both world and time, but that is another story.) All leaders need this skill of quarrying objectives out of aims, and then cutting steps into the objectives so that they can be achieved.
Or, as a proverb put it more colorfully, ‘If you are going to eat an elephant you have to do it one mouthful at a time’.
The reverse process – relating the particular to the general – is equally important. Leaders tend naturally to give the reason why something has to be done; bosses just tell you to do it. Answering the question ‘why’ means connecting it in the group’s mind with the larger ongoing aims or purposes.
The mere presence of a sound purpose is obviously not enough. It must be felt to be sound by all. In other words, it must be surcharged with a strong sense of purpose, dynamic emotion, with a hopefulness, with an abounding, robust sense of joy in the work itself. There you will find that making it happen may be difficult but it will never be impossible.
CHECKLIST: DEFINING THE TASK
1. Are you clear about the objectives of your team now and for the next few years/months, and have you agreed on them with your leader?
2. Do you fully understand the wider aims and purpose of the organization?
3. Can you relate the objectives of your team to those larger, more general intentions?
4. Does your present team objective have sufficient specificity? Is it defined in terms of time? Is it as concrete or tangible as you can make it?
5. Will the team be able to know soon for itself if you succeed or fail? Does it have swift feedback of results?
6. What is your team working on at present?
‘Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.’
Planning is the act of bridging the gap mentally from where you and the group are now to where you want to be at some future moment in terms of accomplishing a task. A plan is a method devised for making or doing something or achieving an end. It always implies mental formulation and sometimes graphic representation.
The planning function is the response to the group’s needs: ‘How are we going to achieve the task?’ But the ‘how’ question soon leads you to ask also ‘Who does what?’ and ‘When does it have to be done?’ Indeed, as a planner you could do worse than memorize Rudyard Kipling’s short checklist:
I keep six honest serving men. (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who
Usually, if a plan proves to be inadequate, it is because either you as the leader or the group (or both) have not pressed home these questions until you have clear and definite answers.
A poor or inadequate plan means that your subsequent team action is doomed from the start. It usually turns into a drama, a comedy or tragedy, depending on the circumstances, in three Acts: Beginning, Muddle, and No End. As the old adage says, ‘Fail to plan and you plan to fail’.
So planning is essentially about devising a method for making or doing something or achieving an end. A leader without plans is not likely to be effective. So, how do you develop skill as a planner?
Searching for alternatives
There is a skill in conjuring out from your own mind and from the group a sufficient number of alternative methods to choose from.
Shortage of time obviously can limit you. If you are trying to avoid a car crash, you do not have time to consider all the feasible alternatives: you have to select the first one that flashes into your mind. Therefore one of the first questions you should ask is, ‘How much time have I got?’
If necessary, test those time constraints to see if they are real as opposed to assumed ones. We often have more time to make a plan that we think we do. Provided there is not a crisis or an emergency and you know how much time is available, you can apply yourself to using that planning time to good effect. Keep a careful check on the time, however, because it soon goes.
Another factor you must take into account is the resources available to you in identifying the different feasible courses of action or solutions. What people can you consult? You may have noticed how good leaders lead when faced with a significant difficulty – whether an operational challenge or some crisis.
They hold in check their own hunches or intuitions as to what should be done. Establishing the facts is their absolute priority, coupled with identifying the salient factors, the ones relevant to the decision that needs to be made. Then, when discussing the options that arise from the realities of the situation, the leader tends not to declare their own thoughts prematurely.
A trained instinct causes the effective leader always to listen first to the ideas, courses of action or solutions proposed by the team. If time allows, he or she asks those junior to speak before their seniors.
The leader then summarizes what has been put forward, decides on the way forward, and explains the logic behind it. Such an approach can be deeply satisfying to all participants and is likely to yield the best solution.
The team or individuals who are going to carry out the plan are especially important in the decision-making process. Remember that fundamental principle: the more that people share in the decisions which affect their working life, the more they are motivated to carry them out.
In groups where all members are roughly equal incompetence the choice between alternatives may be debated hotly. Leaders, as well as members, need to be able to put the case for a course of action as persuasively as they can while remaining open-minded and honest enough to recognize the truth when it emerges from any quarter.
Such a process belongs to the essence of democracy. ‘Whenever people can be persuaded rather than ordered – when they can be made to feel that they have participated in developing the plan – they approach their tasks with understanding and enthusiasm’, said Eisenhower. He recalled that Churchill was a persuader during the planning phase:
Indeed his skill in the use of words and logic was so great that on several occasions when he and I disagreed on some important matter – even when I was convinced of the correctness of my own view and when responsibility was clearly mine – I had a very hard time withstanding his arguments.
More than once he forced me to re-examine my own premises, to convince myself again that I was right – or accept his solution.
Yet if the decision went against him, he accepted it with good grace and did everything in his power to support it with proper action. Leadership by persuasion and the wholehearted acceptance of a contrary decision are both fundamentals of democracy.
It becomes clear that without leadership, any form of democracy can be inert and feeble.
As the Chinese saying goes, ‘A thousand workers, a thousand plans’. To get anything agreed and done calls for leadership. When all people can feel themselves to be equal in value, if not in knowledge and experience, that is the beginning of true leadership – not its end.
As Montesquieu wrote, ‘To suggest where you cannot compel, to guide where you cannot demand, that is the supreme form of skill’.
How to be more creative
Planning doesn’t sound very creative, does it? All those typed schedules and drawings or diagrams. But a plant grows from an idea. That idea is the germ of a method, solution or course. Perhaps the most common mistake is to make an unconscious assumption which limits the number or kind of methods.
‘It is quite clear’, a director of human resources announced to her colleagues recently, ‘that we can do only two things about Bill Jackson in accounts: move him sideways or make him redundant. Which will it be?’
The better leaders have always resisted this binary thinking – black or white, this or that. But many managers (and academics) do think in terms of either/or, because it offers a spurious clarity. This is an important stage in some cases (e.g. a judge summing up for a jury) to reduce the judgment to an issue (either this or that) if it can be done.
But it is fatal to do it too quickly so that you totally ignore the third, fourth or fifth possibilities, which might have included the best suggestions. So you should make sure that you or your group generate enough options.
As Bismarck used to say to his generals, ‘If you think the enemy has only two courses open to him you can be sure that he will choose the third!’
In most situations, the three or four feasible alternatives can be identified by straightforward observation, though, and group discussion. But there is often a ‘creative solution’, so called because it is hidden until someone actually discovers it.
(‘How obvious and simple. Why didn’t we think of that?’) If the two puzzles in the following exercise are not already familiar to you, they will make the point.
Exercise: Functional flexibility
List twenty-five uses for a hammer other than knocking in nails or wrenching them out. You have five minutes.
You may find it hard to think of new ideas or to generate them from other people if you have picked up the habit of instant criticism.
Negative criticism directed at your own ideas or someone else’s will destroy them. The technique is known as ‘brainstorming’ works by encouraging people deliberately to suspend judgment – to refrain from criticism and to produce as many ideas as possible. On the other hand, if you want to stifle creative thinking here are some useful phrases for you:
The concept of group climate is important here. Some groups are like a white frost on an April morning in England: they kill off the blossoms of ideas which might one day fruit into plans.
The atmosphere is negative, hypercritical and anxious. Other groups are like warm mornings in May: positive, encouraging and confident. Leadership is a key factor in turning a negative group into a positive one.
Each of us has some ten thousand million brain cells and they are probably the most expensive resource your organization hires. In order to secure the best quality plan, you will need to involve the team’s brain cells as well as your own. It pays off a high dividend in commitment.
Making a contingency plan
Constructing a work programme and a time plan follows naturally from the choice of a method to achieve the task. Depending on the technology involved, that work programme can vary enormously in size and complexity.
The only general guidelines that can be given is to keep it as simple as possible. But there is one aspect of planning which experienced leaders tend to devote more attention to than others – contingency planning.
No one can ever make a perfect plan. You cannot foresee every eventuality. Once thinking stops and committee action begins – the real ‘point-of-no-return’ in decision making – there are bound to be some contingencies – things that happen by chance or through unforeseen causes which affect what you are doing.
A good plan will make some provision for the contingent in human affairs. A prudent householder usually keeps a bit of money in reserve in case some of the things that are liable to happen actually do so.
A wise general also keeps a reserve corps available in case the enemy does something he had not expected. So you should build a certain amount of flexibility into your plan so that you are not caught out by unforeseen (but not improbable) happenings.
To repeat the point, a good leader thinks ahead. He or she uses their imagination in a disciplined way to picture those contingencies. Their imagination is like a mental radar screen. Once a possible contingency has been picked up they must estimate the chances of it occurring and make provision accordingly.
Thus, you have to become an educated guesser. ‘All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life,’ said the Duke of Wellington to a friend over dinner one evening, ‘is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do. That’s what I called guessing what was at the other side of the hill.’
In the language of leadership qualities, it is known as foresight – seeing what others cannot see because they are not tall enough to look over the hill.
Thus, as a planner, you should be developing the necessary abilities for sharing decision making where feasible, as well as creative imagination and foresight. To these should be added, of course, the necessary professional knowledge and technical skills required in your particular work.
CHECKLIST: PLANNING YOUR WORK
Have you listened to specialist advice before making your plan?
Did you consider all the feasible courses of action and weigh them up in terms of resources needed/available and outcomes?
Have you a programme now which will achieve your objective?
Is there a provision for contingencies?
Did you and the team actively search for a more creative solution as the basis for your plan?
Have you made the plan as simple and as foolproof as possible, rather than complicated?
Does the plan include any necessary preparation or training of the team or individuals?
Are you aware of your PNR (Point of No Return), the point at which no changes can be made without causing unacceptable confusion?
Do you keep the plan under regular review?
Planning is a key activity in any working group or organization, and it constitutes one of the foundation principles of leadership. Like all the other functions, it can be done with skill and effectively – or poorly and ineffectively.
Once the task has been defined, the first step in planning is to search for alternatives. More often than not this work is best done in consultation with others.
It is important to not only remain open to but indeed to actively encourage new ideas or possibilities. You should aim to become a creative thinker yourself and learn how to stimulate creative or innovative ideas in the group and in each individual.
No plan, however original, is perfect. Indeed, experience tends to teach us that any plan – even if it is a good one – will have a tendency to go off the rails. It is certainly not wise to plan projects on ‘best case’ scenarios. There should be tolerances or fall-back strategies.
Glitches – unexpected problems or malfunctions – will occur. So the leader with practical wisdom acts in the knowledge that there are a number of things that can go wrong. Not all of these possibilities can be foreseen.
Always plan for foreseeable contingencies. If you are flexible you can adjust to your plan any new factors in the situation as they arise. As a French general once said to me, ‘A plan is a very good basis for changing your mind’.
Such briefing sessions are held in all kinds of other organizations, albeit without the drama of a wartime situation. In them, the leader is performing a basic leadership function – briefing the team. He or she is informing or instructing them thoroughly in advance – in advance, that is, of the action required of them.
And, by wider extension, briefing in this context covers all the situations where you are addressing either the team or an individual member in your role as leader. So it can be sometimes quite informal and conversational.
The content of a team briefing meeting in the formal sense – gathered together – is the result of carrying out two previous functions: defining the task and planning.
After stating the objectives and why they are important, you have to describe the plan – in outline first and then in greater detail (although this second activity can be delegated to a subordinate or colleague, as General Savage does in the film).
It is essential for you to answer the question which will be in everyone’s minds, ‘What is my part going to be?’
So ask yourself before and after such a briefing meeting questions such as:
Does everyone know exactly what his or her job is?
Has each member of the group clearly defined targets and performance standards agreed between them and me?
The main purpose of a briefing meeting is to allocate tasks to groups and individuals, to distribute resources and to set or check standards of performance. Each person should know at the end what is expected of them and how the contribution of their sub-group or their own efforts will fit in with the purposeful work of everyone else.
Again, just to emphasize the point, briefing in this wider sense is an on-going function. You don’t do it just once at the beginning of a project and then forget about it.
A consideration of the leader’s method brings us to your need to develop your communication skills. Here, the specific ability to speak effectively to your team and to other groups is going to be important for your progress. How do you do it?
To begin with the good news: you do not have to become a great orator. You should not concern yourself with the tricks of rhetoric, the techniques taught to would-be demagogues in ancient Athens.
The only test is whether or not you can speak in such a way that you move the group to the desired action. Demosthenes said to a rival orator: ‘You make the audience say, “How well he speaks!” I make them say, “Let us march against Philip!”’
Seven tips for becoming a good speaker
1 Examine the true purpose of each communication. Always ask yourself what you really want to accomplish with your message.
2 Be mindful, while you communicate, of the overtones as well as the basic content of your message.
3 When it comes to content, bear in mind the enduring value of truth in any human communication. As one Ethiopian proverb says: Over truth there is light.
4 Consider the total physical and human setting whenever you communicate. Check your sense of timing against the situation. There is a time and a place for everything.
5 Take the opportunity, when it arises, to convey something of help or value to the receiver.
6 Be sure that your actions support your communication. Words should interpret what is done and action should accompany words. Eventually, our words should become acts and our acts our truest words.
7 Seek not only to be understood but also to understand – be a good listener.
An element of persuasion, in the sense of explaining why in a convincing way, will enter into most briefing or communicating meetings. But it will happen more naturally if you have mastered the skills of speaking or briefing. We can identify five sets of skills involved in communicating effectively with action in mind.
Clarity is the cardinal principle of power or effectiveness in both speech and writing. Therefore good communication begins in the mind. The poet Nicolas Boileau expressed this truth in 1674:
What is conceived well is expressed clearly,
And words to say it will arise with ease.
Clear thinking issues in a clear utterance: if your thoughts or ideas are a bit confused, vague or fuzzy, then they will be that much less easily understood or perceived.
Thus the application of this principle begins a long way back from the boardroom or executive office, in the struggle to achieve clarity in the uncertain weather of the mind.
This entails mastering the intellectual skills of analyzing, synthesizing and valuing. You can find out more about these in my companion book, Effective Decision Making.
However, it should not be supposed that what is clear is automatically true. Someone once said that George Bernard Shaw’s head contained a confusion of clear ideas. Be that as it may, truth does not always come purified and translucent, and ‘All that glitters is not gold’.
Clarity is a mercenary value: it serves well whoever is prepared to pay the price for it. That price includes the willingness to suffer muddle, confusion, and ambiguity before the clouds part, the dust settles, and the issue, problem or course of action becomes crystal clear.
If it becomes a matter of communicating with others, the combination of truth and clarity is extremely irresistible, certainly so in the long run.
He could describe a complex situation with amazing lucidity and sum up a long exercise without the use of a single note. He looked straight into the eyes of the audience when he spoke.
He had a remarkable flair for picking out the essence of a problem, and for indicating its solution with startling clarity. It was almost impossible to misunderstand his meaning, however unpalatable it might be.
Briefing and group work
Briefing sessions or conferences – work meetings – allow you to do some valuable work in all Three Circles models, making general points connected with the specific matter in hand. In the task area, for example, you can make it the occasion (as General Savage did) for taking charge.
A certain amount of assertiveness is often required of leaders and the group will accept it – even welcome it – if the situation calls for it. You can stress the team approach to the task in hand, thus building up team spirit.
You can meet individual needs by listening to and acknowledging the help of those who help you to achieve the ends of the meeting. It can also be an opportunity for emphasizing the significance of each individual’s contribution to the success of the enterprise.
General Savage in the film was using the medium of the briefing meeting – called for the purpose of informing and instructing – to convey or share his vision, standards or values. Perhaps the word most closely associated with leadership in people’s minds is communication.
A good leader communicates. But it is important for you to become more specific than that. In this blog, we have looked at the briefing function. That apparently simple activity does call for a number of skills that can be developed.
At the first level of leadership, you should strive to become competent at briefing your group on objectives and plans. At the more senior level, one day you may have to brief the organization, a much more demanding task.
At all levels, there are individuals who need to be briefed in clear and simple language. Such occasions – team, organizational or individual – are not to be seen merely in terms of the task.
They are also opportunities for you to create the right atmosphere, to promote teamwork, and to get to know, encourage and motivate each individual person.
Your first aim as a leader is to make the task truly common by communicating or sharing it – that is, assuming that you have been given a definite objective by your superior which the group does not know about.
But that is only one type of situation, a relatively straightforward one. Briefing – two-way communication – runs through all your work as a leader.
You don’t have to be an orator! The hallmark of your talking as a leader is that you should be CLEAR. And you won’t be clear in speech if you are not clear in your mind.
Life and work are complex. Your job as a leader is to make the complex SIMPLE enough so that effective action can be taken. Don’t, however, be over-simple or simplistic. But don’t, on the other hand, go out of your way to make it complicated.
A silent, inarticulate or even laconic leader is a contradiction in terms. You cannot perform any leadership function without instrumental words. But don’t be long-winded! Don’t get to like the sound of your own voice! Be CONCISE.
All communication is two-way because as persons we are reciprocal. You may never become a great speaker but you can become a great listener. The world needs listening to leaders.
Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood. WILLIAM PENN, founder of Pennsylvania
Making it happen is central to effective leadership. It is not enough to define your objective or make a workable plan. All too often a shadow falls between the intention or plan, and what actually happens – or doesn’t happen, as the case may be.
As a leader, you are there to see that it happens. Once work has started you have to oversee it so that it reaches a successful conclusion. That calls for the skills which I have roughly grouped under the function of controlling. (The British Army calls it executing.)
‘No one will miss this bag of gold if I slip it under the table. In the account, I’ll put it down as travel expenses.’ In the Middle Ages, the royal servants in the various departments of State were not above helping themselves from the till.
Therefore it was necessary to supervise their accounts of payments and receipts by keeping a duplicate roll. Then you could check or verify payments contra rotulus, against that (second) roll.
At the outset, you have to establish that you are in charge. Then you have to maintain that control. Again, that does not mean that you will do all the leadership work yourself.
But in their eagerness to help there is always a danger that a sub-group or an individual member will in effect take over control from you. Such specialists or strong individuals can be given their head on occasion, but you should keep the reins firmly in your own hands.
However quiet you may be by nature, you must not allow anyone to dominate you or the group. Brave self-assertion is needed. Timidity is out. It is fatal to authority if you give instructions (as orders, suggestions or questions) and act like a small boy who throws a stone and runs away.
Once work has started on a project it is vitally important that you control and coordinate what is being done, so that everyone’s energy is turning wheels and making things happen – or most of the group’s energy anyway, for human beings are as inefficient as old steam engines and steam is always escaping one way or another.
But most of that synergy or common energy of the group should be fully deployed in implementing the common plan and producing the desired results.
A sense of partnership
How do you do it? The secret of control is to have a clear idea in your mind what should be happening, when it should occur, who should be doing it and how it should be done.
The more effectively you have involved the group in your planning the more likely it is that they too will have a similar clear picture of what is required.
The idea is that the team or the individual with whom you are dealing should become self-controlling, so as to regulate his/her own performance against standards or the clock.
‘We have only got two hours left, and so we shall have to work harder to get the job done to meet the deadline.’ Your aim as a leader is to intervene as little as possible.
Your object, then, in directing, regulating and restraining is to ensure that the group’s work keeps within bounds or remains on course like a ship at sea. That is the sole criterion of your effectiveness as a controller.
You have oversight, which means you should be able to look at the whole picture. If obstacles or difficulties crop up in the path of the adopted course, you are then in a good position to help the group to cope with them.
The stance of a controller is to be where the action is, but observing rather than doing. If you watch a good leader in the execution phase of an exercise or project, his or her eyes are never still.
The pattern of ability here is: look, think, and intervene only where strictly necessary and with the minimum exercise of power.
Obviously, if a safety standard is being ignored and someone is in danger of losing life or limb, your thought processes will be instant. But much of what you pick up on will be below standard or performance (especially if you are inclined to be a perfectionist) and you will have to make a judgment whether or not to intervene immediately or to make the points later.
Making it happen
If you decide on intervention, the principle is to use the minimum force possible. If you imagine that you are at the controls of an ocean racing yacht, you do not normally have to force the rudder about or lounge around at the crew with a boathook.
In order to get the group on to its agreed course again, you may only have to touch the controls – a quiet word or even a look can do the trick.
As the Arabs say, ‘Who does not understand a look cannot understand long explanations’. The personal course you have to steer as a leader should take you between the two black rocks of too much interference and lack of direction. Many a leader is shipwrecked in these foaming straits.
The leader as the first companion
If the plan is going well and the group is composed of self-disciplining people, you can sometimes have time to help an individual or a sub-group with their part of the task.
If you want everyone to work hard you must not give the impression that you are standing around with nothing to do. Yet you should always remain in such a position that you can instantly take control if things begin to go wrong.
Some leaders make the mistake of getting so involved in a piece of work that they forget their responsibility for the whole. You do not see the whole forest if you are busy cutting down a tree – which your woodman could do better than you if only he could get his hands on his ax!
Setting an example of hard work is always a good idea, as long as it does not detract from your function as director and controller.
Controlling a meeting
Taking the chair in committees and at meetings is a leadership role. Therefore the model of the Three Circles applies. Decision making is essential too, because that is usually what meetings and committees are about.
Consequently, there is relatively little to be added specifically about the chairperson’s job providing you have grasped the elements of good leadership.
What matters most then is to observe and learn from experienced chairpersons at work. They are rare people, and you should not miss the opportunity of watching closely how they conduct a meeting so that the tasks are achieved, the group works as a team and each individual contributes effectively according to their talents.
There are some leadership functions needed more frequently in committees and meetings than elsewhere. The skill of silencing people in a firm but friendly way has to be developed.
The skill of testing for consensus is also vital. A good chairperson will sense that area of consensus, which is rather like the invisible ever-moving center of a shoal of fish.
Here his or her ability to read non-verbal behavior – a raised eyebrow, a half-smile, a vigorous nod – can be significant. If you watch a good leader in the chair you will notice that he or she always keeps an eye on the faces of the committee members.
Lastly, the skill of summarizing may have to be employed more than once during a meeting. It is a means of taking bearings, to ensure that the ship is still on course.
True consensus is not always possible, even if it is normally desirable because it can be very time to consume. It occurs when communication has been sufficiently open for all to feel they have had a fair chance to influence the decision and the ‘feeling of the meeting’ emerges without voting.
If you cannot control yourself you are unlikely to be able to control others. Take a bad temper as an example. An occasional explosion of anger does no harm if the provocation is evident and treatable.
Leaders tend not to be placid, and the capacity for justified anger is important. Your people should be wary of getting on the wrong side of you by being willfully inefficient or ineffective.
But bad temper is a very different matter. It is far from being a harmless weakness, a mere matter of temperament. If you are easily ruffled, quick-tempered or ‘touchy’ by disposition, people will diagnose it as caused by a lack of patience, kindness, courtesy or unselfishness.
Remember, however, that all your weaknesses are merely tendencies to act in a certain way. They do not guarantee that you will do so. Hundreds of leaders have successfully curbed their fiery tempers, harnessing the energy released rather than allowing themselves to simply ‘blow their top’. ‘Leaders,’ said Paul of Tarsus, ‘should not be “easily provoked”.’
There are plenty of other aspects in us that invite self-control. Just controlling your tongue – that unruly member – can be a formidable job. The encouraging fact is that each small victory over one of these tendencies makes the next encounter a little easier.
Calm, cool and collected
There are some situations which naturally invite fear or anxiety. Everyone must be aware that fear is contagious. An animal can smell or sense whether or not you are afraid of it, so can people.
You only have to recollect how panic can suddenly seize a crowd without a word being spoken. But courage – the resource in us which enables us to contain or overcome fear – is also contagious. the bravest of the brave’.
As a leader, you have to be able to get the group and its individual members moving – or keep them moving – in the desired direction. This general ability to move and excite people to action is now called motivation.
The subjects of your motivating activity will be the team and the individual. By extension, especially if or when you become a strategic leader, it will come to include the organization as well.
Be motivated yourself
As a leader, you need to be enthusiastic. You can’t light a fire with a dead match! There is nothing as contagious as enthusiasm. Certainly, great designs are not accomplished without enthusiasm.
As the Bedouin proverb puts it: ‘What comes from your heart is greater than what comes from your hand alone.’
Select people who are highly motivated
It is hard to motivate people who are not motivated already. Therefore look for people who have the seeds of high motivation in them.
As Oliver Cromwell once said: ‘Give me the red-coated captain who knows what he is fighting for and loves what he knows.’ Build your team not from those who talk enthusiastic but from those who show eagerness for the business in hand and steady commitment in their actions.
As an old folk saying has it: ‘Don’t beat the pig to try to make it sing. It wears you out and annoys the pig. Much better to sell the pig for bacon and buy a canary.’
Treat each person as an individual
Theories and principles apply to the generality of people. You will never know how they apply – even if they apply – to any given individual person unless you observe them and talk to them. You will learn what motivates them, and perhaps also how their pattern of motivation has changed over their lifetime.
Set realistic and challenging targets
The best people like to be stretched – they welcome feasible but demanding tasks. Don’t make life too easy for them! Fortunately, business life provides a series of challenges, enough to keep everyone on their toes.
Without toil, trouble, difficulty, and struggle there is no sense of achievement. Your skill as a leader is to set and agree goals, objectives or targets that both achieve the task and develop the team and its individual members.
Remember that progress motivates
We all need positive feedback that we are moving in the right direction, for that encourages us to persevere in the face of difficulties. ‘I will go anywhere, as long as it is forwards,’ said David Livingstone to a friend.
If you as a leader can show to your team – and to each individual member – that progress is being made, that in itself will feed their determination to press forward on the path of success.
Create a motivating environment
Leadership calls for social creativity every bit as important and demanding as the artistic creativity of painter, sculptor or composer. You are there to build teamwork, and that is a creative activity.
More widely, all leaders in an organization should work together to ensure that it is an interesting, stimulating and challenging place of work.
Remember the 50–50 principle: about half of our motivation comes from outside ourselves, especially the people around us.
Their commitment, passion and stimulating creative minds can awaken the sleeping powers within us. Your job as a leader is to foster that learning and motivating environment.
Provide fair rewards
We have a built-in sense of fairness. It is sometimes not easy to ensure equity in salary and bonuses, but it is important to remember that the perception of unfair rewards does have a demotivating effect on most people – Herzberg was right in that respect.
As a general principle, financial (and other) rewards should match the relative value of contribution, according to the market assessment for any particular kind of work.
At best, money is a crude measure of the value of work. Is a pop star really worth a thousand times more money than a brain surgeon?
A good leader should be swift to show recognition to all members of the team or organization, however indirect their contribution is to the overall task. You should work on the principle of ‘credit where credit is due’. Where the work of people is valued there is always motivation to do it – and to do it well.
Just as there are leaders who prove to be extremely weak as organizers, especially when they are unwisely promoted into their ‘level of incompetence’ in the organization, so there are some who have a talent for organizing but lack ability in the other major functions.
Assuming that you already have the potential for being a good organizer and some experience in organizations, the aim of this blog is to sharpen your skills.
Organizing is the function of arranging or forming into a coherent unity or functional whole. It can mean systematic planning as well, but that is a function we have already covered. Here, organizing means more the kind of structuring that has to be done if people are to work as a unit with each element performing its proper part.
It is essentially concerned with getting right the relation of the whole and the parts. It is a manifestation of perhaps a deep vocational impulse to impose or bring order in place of chaos.
The order is the value that lies behind society, just as freedom is the value that lies behind the individual. A balance needs to be struck in any team or organization between order (the whole) and freedom (the individual).
Organizing your team
In order to achieve anything you may have to give your group some structure, especially if it is large (more than 5–10 people) and the task is complex. These structures may be temporary – for the duration of the exercise – or permanent.
If the group in question is a permanent or continuing one, with individuals joining and leaving it, it may well be part of a larger organization. In which case the organization as a whole, or your predecessor as leader, may already have sub-groups with leaders.
You may wish to maintain that ready-made structure, or introduce changes. The essence of organizing at this level is to break up the group as it gets larger into smaller sub-groups and to appoint leaders who are responsible to you.
This will give you a second communications system. The first is the method of talking to the whole group yourself and listening to what they say – two-way, face-to-face communication. The content of these team meetings will include purpose, policies, progress, and people.
The advantage of this method is that it is not liable to the communication failures which occur when you are passing messages to another person via a third (and fourth and fifth …) party. But it is time-consuming.
Much – but not all – of this communication work can be delegated to sub-leaders. A good and well-trained sub-leader will not only pass on and interpret messages accurately but will also report back to you clearly and concisely the reactions, constructive ideas or suggestions which arose in his or her sub-group meeting on such areas as:
How to do the task more effectively.
How we can work better as a team.
How individuals can make their optimal contribution.
The structure not only gives you a second communication system, but it also provides you with another option in your decision making and problem-solving strategy. You can now put a problem to, or ask for proposed courses of action or solutions from, your inner leadership team of sub-group leaders rather than to the group as a whole.
In choosing when to use each of these two methods for decision making, it is important to be flexible according to the needs of the situation, the size, and character of the group and the kind of decision involved.
If your group is a very large one (20 or more) it is essential to sub-divide it and appoint (or allow the members to elect) leaders responsible to you, otherwise, the individual needs described elsewhere in this book are not going to be met.
You want each of your sub-leaders to involve their people in the task, develop a team approach and to inspire, encourage and control individuals as necessary.
The more the sub-groups can take on these functions themselves, with the minimum of supervision, the better. But that, paradoxically, requires good leadership from you and their sub-group leader.
Providing you take the Three Circles model as your guide you can undertake this structural survey without too much difficulty, especially if you set up a small but representative steering group to work with you. The key is to ask yourselves the right questions.
Whether you start at the top and work downwards, or vice versa, it is important to be systematic about it. You are trying to see how the pieces of the jigsaw fit together.
At the first-line level, you should need an answer to the question ‘How large or small should the primary group or groups be in this industry?’ A good guideline is to establish how many people one team leader can ‘do the Three Circles’ with – if you catch my meaning.
The Roman Army, like the Greeks before them, operated with a primary group of ten soldiers led by decades. In large Benedictine monasteries, the leader at the strategic level was the Abbot, and the ‘operational leaders’ were the heads of the major departments.
For the ‘team leaders’ – those responsible for ten monks – St Benedict in his Rule borrowed the title decades.
It is the origin of the academic and church title dean. A football and cricket team consists of 11 players each. However simple the task in technological terms, the span of control of a team leader should probably not exceed ten or twelve people. This refers to the number who are directly responsible to any given leader, and who therefore constitute his team.
A good leader delegates
To delegate means to give a team member the authority and freedom to handle certain matters on his or her own initiative, with the confidence that they can do the job successfully. It is not to be confused with the abdication of responsibility.
Telling a team member the results required and giving them the authority – ‘Do it your way and ask for help if required.’ Relinquishing responsibility for the job – ‘Do it any way you like but don’t ask for help if it goes wrong.’
Remember that you should not delegate unless you are willing to give the person concerned the necessary authority to do the job, matched with your supportive trust in him or her.
Be available to discuss progress or help with any problems the subordinate cannot deal with themselves. Grip your desk hard and do not interfere! Accept the fact that the job will be done differently from the way that you would have done it, but still, fall within the bounds of success.
Such effective delegation serves a two-fold purpose: it frees you for constructive work on larger projects, and it is a necessary technique for furthering the growth and development of subordinates. Make sure that the person knows what results are expected of him or her and make them accountable for their performance.
Sure signs of whether or not you are capable of executing the function of organizing lie in your own life. A good indicator is whether or not you are good at organizing your own time.
It is essential for the leader to make time to think, both about the present and the future. That means in the first place awareness of the value of time and the economical use of it.
‘Ask me for anything,’ Napoleon would say, ‘except for time.’ He knew that he had only 24 hours a day like anyone else, but he used his time very much more effectively than most people.
One method of developing your awareness and skill in time management is to keep a detailed diary of how you are spending your time. Often this reveals that relatively little time is being given to the key activities of leadership and communication, let alone thinking about decisions or problems.
People dropping in during the morning, chatting or drinking coffee, or indiscriminate attention to all your emails as they come in can take up half your time. At the end of the day, you go home with that uncomfortable feeling that you have not really achieved anything.
Making time to think
What advice can be offered to a leader? He must discipline himself and lead a carefully regulated and ordered life. He must allow a certain amount of time for quiet thought and reflection; the best times are in the early morning, and in the evening. The quality, good or bad, of any action which is to be taken, will vary directly with the time spent in thinking; against this, he must not be rigid; his decisions and plans must be adaptable to changing situations.
A certain ruthlessness is essential, particularly with inefficiency and also with those who would waste his time. People will accept this, provided the leader is ruthless with himself…
Most leaders will find there is so much to do and so little time to do it; that was my experience in the military sphere. My answer to that is not to worry; what is needed is a quiet contemplation of all aspects of the problem, followed by a decision – and it is fatal to worry afterward.
FIELD MARSHAL LORD MONTGOMERY
Here are some practical suggestions to help you to make the best use of your time at work. Check yourself against this ten-point programme once a month for the next six months.
1 Develop a personal sense of time
Do not rely on memory or assume that you know where your time goes. For one or two weeks keep a record. Become more aware of the value of your time and resolve to use it well.
2 Identify your longer-term goals and policies
The clearer you are about your longer-terms ends, the easier you will find it to identify your priorities. Policies are decisions about principles: they help you to make many daily decisions without having to waste too much time on them.
3 Make middle-term plans
You should be able to translate fluently purpose into aims, and aims into objectives. Plan your work on aims and objectives in terms of opportunities and desired results, priorities and deadlines.
4 Plan the day
Make a list of what you want to do each day. Arrange it or mark it in some order of priority. Learn to say no, otherwise, you will become merely the slave to the priorities of others.
5 Make the best use of your best time
Your best time is when you do your best work. Where possible, always use it for important tasks. Have some planned quiet periods for creative thinking.
6 Organize your administrative work
Work out systems for handling paperwork, dealing with emails and making telephone calls, so that you do not fragment your day. Make administration your servant and not your master.
7 Manage meetings
Work out the agenda carefully, allotting time for each item. Start on time and end on time. Use your skills as a leader to make meetings both business-like and enjoyable.
8 Delegate effectively
Where possible, delegate as many administrative responsibilities as you can. The reason for doing so is to free yourself for exercising the kind of leadership that your position requires.
9 Make use of committed time
Committed time is time given over to specific purposes, such as travel. Use waiting time or traveling time to think, plan or read or make calls.
10 Manage your health
Time management is primarily about the quality of your time, not about its quantity. Follow common sense guidelines oversleep, diet, exercise and holidays.
Organizing is an important function in meeting all three areas of the Three Circles model. Check your organizing ability in the following areas.
GROUP Yes No
Is the size of the working group correct and are the right people working together?
Is there a need for sub-groups to be constituted?
Are there regular opportunities or procedures for genuine consultation with the group before making decisions affecting them e.g. decisions relating to work plans and output, work methods and standards, work measurement and overtime working?
Are you clear on the purpose of the organization and how the various parts of it work together to achieve that end?
Is there an effective system for staffing the organization and training? Is there a fair dismissal procedure?
Do you carry out regular surveys of the organization to check:
the size of all working groups?
the number of leadership levels?
the growth of unnecessary complexity?
line and staff co-operation?
that the communication systems are working properly?
Are there ways in which you could organize your personal and working life, e.g. how you deal with your personal administration, in order to be a more effective leader?
Do you delegate sufficiently?
Have you identified at least three steps you can take in order to become a better organizer of your time?
Organizing is the function of arranging parts into working order. ‘Structure is a means for attaining the objectives and goals of an institution,’ writes Peter Drucker. This is no more than another application of the Three Circles model.
At the team level, you may have to organize for results by setting up sub-groups. At the organizational level, however, the principle may mean introducing structural changes to respond to changes in the task, technology or the environment.
The Three Circles model serves as a guide for carrying out your own survey of your own team structure. It is based upon common sense principles. Bringing about the changes will, of course, require considerable powers of leadership.
To be effective as a leader you should be able to organize your own work. You should become especially good at managing your time, for it is your most precious resource. For you need time to think about time for other people.
‘Time wasted is existence, used is life,’ wrote the poet Edward Young. So it is worth recalling to yourself often that nothing belongs to you but your time, and you have it even if you have nothing else. Achieve a balance between work and private life that works for you and keeps you free from the toxic kinds of stress.
Appraising, evaluating, reviewing, rating, assessing, judging and estimating are all aspects of the basic function of valuing. These ships can all sail here under the flagship of evaluating: the ability to determine or fix the value of something.
Like analyzing and synthesizing, the other two basic functions of intelligence, valuing enters into all of a leader’s thinking and action. The controlling function, for example, clearly involves some evaluating of progress against yardsticks or standards.
In this section we shall concentrate on some specific skills which you will need to acquire or develop as a leader, namely:
Evaluating team performance
Appraising and training individuals
In all organizations, there are some people who have a reputation for good judgment in the sense that they are adept at assessing the consequences of any potential action inside and outside the organization.
Equally, we all know people who lack judgment in this respect. In industry, they are often responsible for triggering off strikes, stoppages or other breakdowns in industrial relations.
In the decision-making or problem-solving process, you will have to assess the consequences of proposed courses of action or solutions before making up your mind.
In some instances, you will be reduced to rough estimates or guesses about these consequences. But the greater the amount of science you bring to bear, the more you can predict consequences with accuracy.
Where possible, turn estimates into calculations. In an industry that means carrying out a rigorous cost/benefit evaluation of the courses open to you.
With regard to ‘people’ consequences, a matter of vital concern to the leader, a common mistake is to guess instead of finding out by going and asking the people concerned.
‘They will never agree to work extra shifts, that’s for sure. They never have done in the past,’ said a board director. But that is an unexamined assumption. Test that consequence to see if it is a real one – you may get a pleasant surprise.
Someone once neatly summed up the decision-making process as being in three phases: making the decision, implementing it and living with the consequences. The latter divided into two forms at the point where you are deciding: manifest – plainly apparent or obvious at the time; and latent – hidden or concealed to the decision-maker.
You can develop your ability to assess those consequences in advance –except for the latent ones – by carefully analyzing cause-and-effect in what happens. Gradually you identify patterns or tendencies.
It becomes easier to predict what will happen. Your ‘depth mind’ – the subconscious center or most of your ten thousand million brain cells – can sometimes act as a computer in this respect, printing out warnings, judgments or expectations. An informed or educated depth mind, fed upon experience analyzed and digested, is a valuable asset for any leader.
Evaluating team performance
In working enterprises, it is often valuable to have a debriefing session after a particular project. This gives you the chance to evaluate the performance of the group as a whole in relation to the task. First, you should have a realistic and honest statement of results in terms of the following:
Objectives all achieved.
Some objectives or part of an objective attained but not others. None of the objectives achieved.
Then you should move on to the evaluation proper. You can either initiate this phase by giving your own views or invite comments from the team as a whole. Unless you are a very experienced leader, it is best always to follow the simple drill of identifying the good points first – what went well – and then coming on to the points for improvement.
These should include constructive ways in which the team performance as a whole can be changed for the better. You may take decisions on the spot to effect these changes or choose to think about it for a day or two.
Group meetings for de-briefing purposes are usually not the right place to deal with individual failings unless you want to make an example of someone for the benefit of the group as a whole.
At de-briefing meetings, however, you can tackle any particular problems that have caused the group to fragment into independent rather than inter-dependent parts. The film Twelve O’Clock High provides a good illustration of the latter.
During one de-briefing meeting, while the 918 Bomb Group is still sustaining heavy losses over enemy territory, Savage finds that some individuals are putting their close friends first.
Appraising and training individuals
‘Appraisal meeting’ is a familiar term in management jargon. This is a regular interview, sometimes as little as once a year when a manager sits down with his or her subordinate and appraises the work of the subordinate against their objectives.
‘Don’t tell me that the man is doing good work,’ said Andrew Carnegie to one of his plant bosses. ‘Tell me what good work he is doing.’
During an appraisal meeting you should create an environment where you can have a constructive dialogue with a subordinate (or superior or colleague for that matter) on the following agenda:
Future work to be done, targets, priorities, standards, and strategies
Matching perceptions of what each can reasonably expect from the other
Improving skills, knowledge, and behavior.
At the end of the meeting or shortly afterward, any agreed future actions should be written down. What has to be done? When? To what standard?
Do not expect too much from a system of formal performance appraisal meetings. Certainly, if they are not followed up by action from both the appraiser and the appraisee, they can soon degenerate into empty rituals.
But the results of a good appraisal, when linked with good counseling, include better teamwork, improved commitment and the development of knowledge, skill, and character.
A Full Life
Therefore, you should see the formal system as at best a safety net for a process that should be going on continually.
As the leader, you should be continually assessing the value of each individual’s contribution and giving him or her feedback on how they are doing. Sometimes individuals, especially the over-modest ones, may genuinely undervalue some action or function they perform.
It is a kind of occupational inferiority complex. The leader can correct this misjudgment. He or she may also, as we have seen, have occasions to point out the shortfalls in objectives.
However, a leader is not in the seat of a judge in the law court impartially appraising someone’s actions while they stand in the dock. He or she is out to improve performance.
Leaders have to be skilled in communicating both their perceptions of the strengths and the weaknesses of the individual concerned. They must have data or information at hand to back up any observation they give.
Above all, they must put their suggestions across so that they are acceptable and actionable by the individual. The best way to do that is to ask the individual to appraise his or her own performance against standing or continuing aims and specific objectives. Then agree with them an action plan for the future.
Thus, the function of appraising an individual’s performance is only useful if it is the prelude to some form of learning or training. Even if the result of the interview is that you dismiss that person, or transfer him to another group, it can still be presented in a positive light as a lesson you have learned together.
As a leader, you need to be in part a teacher or trainer of people. Conversely, a teacher has to be something of a leader.
It is possible to teach yourself specific techniques, such as asking questions of different kinds which may be useful in appraisal meetings. The following could be useful examples:
What matters more, however, is to take seriously your responsibilities for developing the individual as his or her mentor throughout the year, not just for an hour or two in a formal or semi-formal meeting. You should be able to offer each individual person something drawn from your practical wisdom.
Unfortunately, unless your subordinate appraises you highly in that respect, he or she is unlikely to want to learn from you. As Winston Churchill once remarked to his wife, ‘I cannot stand being taught – but I enjoy learning.’
What is it in you that might make people want to learn from you? Given that you have a modicum of wisdom, it is best to see yourself not as a coach training a sportsman, but as a more experienced artist sitting down beside another and commenting helpfully on the work in hand.
Remember Cicero’s definition of an orator: ‘a good man skilled in speaking’. The development of another person may well test your goodness as well as your skill as a teacher. For practical wisdom consists of intelligence, experience, and goodness. But mentoring is one of those activities that can make leadership such a rewarding experience.
You may hear it said about some leaders who are outstanding in other respects: ‘He is no judge of character. Some of the appointments he has made have been disastrous.’
Conversely some people – not all leaders – have a natural flair for forming accurate judgments about people and how they are likely to behave in certain situations. If you have some natural ability as a judge you can develop it by observation, experience, and study.
It is especially instructive to check appointments made by others in your organization against your own knowledge of that person on the one hand and the requirements of the job on the other. Would you have made that appointment? Did it turn out to be a good, average or weak decision in terms of results?
The practice of having favorites is a dangerous one for leaders on several scores. First, it breaks up team unity. Research has shown that, if an Arctic traveler makes a favorite of one husky among his sled dogs, the effectiveness of the whole team sharply deteriorates.
Secondly, the person you have chosen as your favorite is seen by others as an example of your judgment about people.
If others, who know their colleagues better than you do, fail to agree upon your apparently high estimate of your favorite’s worth, then your credibility suffers.
Thirdly, favorites advance by astutely recognizing and pandering to the social and esteem needs of their bosses. If they sense that you like flattery, they will lay it on with a trowel.
Some people are natural courtiers and will vie for your favor with such gifts. In time your judgment can become impaired and you may forget the trivial reasons why you have patronized them – such as their charm or amusing conversation – and you may actually promote them into responsible positions, where they will surely fail.
Assuming that you have remained impartial and even-handed (although it is only human to like some people more than others), the best way to improve your judgments and decisions about people is to take them slowly and work harder at them.
There should be times when you actively work on the question by analyzing your impressions and discussing them with others, followed by times when you relegate the matter to your subconscious or ‘depth mind’ for further resolution.
Among the effective executives I have had occasion to observe, there have been people who make decisions fast, and people who make them rather slowly. But without exception, they made personnel decisions slowly and they make them several times before they really commit themselves.
Like the other functions, you can apply the principle of evaluating to yourself and your work. Indeed, one major objective for you is to form a clear vision of what excellence in leadership means. Then you can appraise your progress in the light of it at regular intervals.
For the best way to learn leadership is to do your present job as well as possible and to carefully monitor your own performance. If you can develop the insight to monitor your leadership performance, then even mistakes and failures will disclose positive lessons.
In this context, you should always evaluate yourself in relation to the generic role – the responsibilities and functions of leadership. Leadership is an other-centered activity, not a self-centered one, and therefore you should avoid any form of self-preoccupation.
Learn from your mistakes
There is one contingency that you need to think about in advance – failure. You will certainly encounter it in the exercise of leadership, for there can be no great success unless you are willing sometimes to work on the edge of failure.
Using the Three Circles model and the rest of this book, work hard to diagnose the cause of that failure. It may have lain within you, or in circumstances beyond your control. But you need to know.
So you must ruthlessly track down the cause of failure as if you were investigating an airplane crash. You will not regain your confidence to fly again until you understand what went wrong and know that you have mended the fault in yourself or in the team.
As Emerson said, ‘A man’s success is made up of failures, because he experiments and ventures every day, and the more falls he gets, moves faster on…
I have heard that in horsemanship he is not the good the rider who never was thrown, but rather that a man will never be a good rider until he is thrown; then he will not be haunted any longer by the terror that he shall tumble and will ride whither he is bound.’
Thus, failure can be your best teacher. It can also give you the priceless gift of humility. As the vice-president of an American company once said to me, ‘I have had enough success to keep me from despair, and enough failure to keep me humble.’
How to learn from feedback
Feedback is simply information that comes to you about people’s reactions – in this case, positive or negative reactions to your performance in the generic role of the leader as it is embedded in your job.
Don’t worry: there will always be plenty of feedback. You shouldn’t have to go out of your way to solicit it – just keep your ears and eyes open. Personally, I am against the practice of setting up managerial systems to solicit feedback.
In the first place, it sends out the signal of self-centeredness; in the second place, there is really no need – it is always there. If you don’t know what your team, colleagues or boss think of you, it’s no good sending them a questionnaire!
Remember that all the fragments of feedback that come your way are only personal impressions: no one has a window into your soul – not even you. But the impressions that others form of you are nonetheless facts.
Of course, some people will know you better than others and may be more perceptive. Feedback needs to be sifted before it is taken on board but beware of dismissing the more critical reactions to your leadership by some form of self-indulgent rationalization.
The principle is to look for a pattern in the feedback from superiors, colleagues or subordinates – solicited or unsolicited – that comes your way. There’s a Hungarian saying:
If you know the general impression you are giving – me it in the domain of qualities, knowledge or functions – you have the freedom to change your behavior. Painful as it may be at the time, although it is usually from stinging critical feedback that we learn the most, we come to know that it is only through the eyes of others can we see our faults.
And in time we can appreciate that this painful self-knowledge is a kind of blessing. As the Arabs say: When God wishes a man well, he gives him insight into his faults.
When people have worked hard at any task, they need to have their work fairly and professionally evaluated. How else can they learn to do better next time?
The ability to evaluate is an important leadership function. In this blog it has been discussed under four headings: assessing consequences, evaluating team performance, appraising and training individuals and judging people.
A crucial element in decision making is evaluating the alternatives in terms of their consequences – technical, financial and human.
Unless you can evaluate team performance with skill, the people working for you will miss a vital part of the feedback which should be coming their way. The better the team, the more it aspires to excellence, the more it welcomes constructive criticism.
Leading by example
As a leader, you cannot help set an example – the question is whether it will be a good or a bad one. If you are setting a good example the people will tend not to be too aware of it, but they will certainly notice and comment upon a bad example.
The Russians have a saying, ‘Nothing is so contagious as a bad example.’ This is something long remarked upon by wise men. Francis Bacon said: ‘He that gives good advice builds with one hand.
He that gives good counsel and example build with both. But he that gives good admonition and bad example builds with one hand and pulls down with the other.’ There you have it.
An example is important, then, because people take in information more through their eyes than their ears. Hence the proverb A picture is worth a thousand words. When you take on the role of leader, you become the picture!
For what they see you do is far more powerful than what they hear you say. The basic principle is that the word and example should always go together – they should support each other. If they conflict, you must expect people to follow your example and not your precept.
‘Don’t do as I do – do as I say’ – those words should never pass the lips of a true leader, except in so far as they acknowledge that he or she is aspiring towards a common high standard, and, being human, is all too aware of their own shortcomings. People will respect you if you try to set the right example, even if you fall short on occasion.
We all know from experience the power of the example of others on our own motivation. If a leader is enthusiastic and motivated it is contagious.
Can you identify any leader who has inspired or motivated you?
What characteristics did they have?
Conversely, can you think of an incident where a bad example set by a manager reduced the energy and motivation of the group?
Many managers, if they were honest, would have to admit they are like the character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who declared: ‘I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow my own teaching.’
Perhaps it is best to think of an example as something you provide rather than set. Setting an example suggests a conscious intention to do something for effect. Shouldn’t example spring out of what you are and what you believe, regardless of effect?
You may disagree with me that a good example shouldn’t be consciously calculated. But in my experience doing things for effect can be counter-productive. In this context, it’s a fairly academic point, because you can’t simulate energetic purposefulness, enthusiasm or drive. If those around you are to see and feel it in you, then it has to be really there.
In the task area
A root meaning of leadership is leading in the sense of literally going out in front of others. The original Old English verb is only found in the causative tense. It means to cause people to follow you – freely, of their own accord. An Alpine guide, for example, may show some followers in what direction they should be traveling.
When we widen the reference of leading by example to non-physical situations, the leader is still the person who causes others to move forward freely by their example.
Leadership implies the personal willingness to go out in front – accepting the risks involved – in order to ensure that your team goes in the right direction at the right speed and with a willing heart.
Leading from the front
Equally conspicuous in sharing the dangers of the front line were his generals, who led from the front and set examples of fearlessness. Mortally wounded, General Valhubert refused to leave the field, declaring to his men: ‘I will die just as well here.’ He did and they fought on; valor was contagious.
To continue the analogy, if you are too far ahead of the group – too advanced in your thinking – you run the risk of losing contact with them altogether.
If you are too far behind, however, you may find yourself saying, like a politician in the French Revolution of 1848 who was trying to force his way through a mob of which he was one of the chief instigators, ‘Let me pass, I have to follow them, I am their leader.’
Just how much of an example you should set by personally doing the work yourself depends upon your level of leadership. At the lower levels you should expect to lead by doing the job yourself – or part of it at least – in the way you expect it to be done.
But the other functions of leadership, notably controlling and coordinating, should take priority if there is any conflict over how your time should be spent.
In the military field, this aspect of leadership tends to be crystal clear. The platoon commander is expected to lead his platoon from the front; the squadron leader flies his own fighter as well as controlling the squadron.
At a certain level, however, the military commander does not lead the attack in person. ‘We shall be right behind you on the day, sir’ said one eager sergeant to General Slim in Burma in the Second World War. ‘Make no mistake, Sergeant,’ replied Slim with a smile, ‘when the day comes you will be several miles in front of me!’
Does the senior leader then stop leading by example? Not necessarily. The fact that he or she at some stage in their careers has led ‘from the front’ in the basic task is itself an important factor in winning the respect of their younger colleagues at all levels.
It has the added practical advantage that people know such a leader will not ask them to do what he or she would not be willing to do themselves – or to have done in the past. If the leader is not willing to do the job themselves, they can hardly command others to do it.
Even at the more senior levels of leadership, it is sometimes possible for the leader to give what might be called a symbolic example.
When Napoleon found a sentry asleep one night he took up the man’s musket and stood guard himself for a few hours. Occasionally a senior leader can ‘lend a hand’, working beside his people for an hour or two.
Such gestures can have an electric effect upon subordinates, in direct proportion to the rank or seniority of the leader concerned. The grapevine, which can be a positive as well as a negative factor in large organizations, will carry the good news around.
When Julius Caesar, their Commander-in-Chief, sat around a mess table with ten soldiers of a Roman legion sharing their meal of bread, meat and rough wine and then in the afternoon took part in their military exercises, the whole Roman Army had heard about it within a few weeks.
Leadership involves the ability to inspire, and people are touched by such imaginative gestures. A gram of example is worth a kilogram of exhortation. Sometimes such a symbolic act can serve to remind a group or an organization of the basic meaning of leadership.
It is as if the leader is saying ‘I should like to be with you all more often, especially when there is a dirty or arduous job to be done, but my other responsibilities just do not allow me to. At least what I have done this afternoon is a token that I mean what I say.’
In team and individual circles
The importance of setting an example in establishing, maintaining, or altering group standards has been touched upon already. Whatever you require the group to do, you should be prepared to do yourself. Punctuality is an obvious instance.
If you want each member to help the others with their work, you can best convey that by doing it yourself. The norms of human relations – listening, respecting, communicating and caring – can all be best conveyed by example.
When Jesus wanted to impress upon his disciples that as leaders they should be prepared to meet the needs of individuals, he did not give them a long lecture on social psychology.
Instead, he took a bowl, jug of water and a towel, knelt down and washed their dusty feet. By thus performing the functions of a lowly household servant, he was also teaching them the need for humility as leaders, a virtue in stark contrast to the domineering arrogance of many of the kings of the day.
‘It is certain,’ wrote Shakespeare in King Henry IV, ‘that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, therefore let men take heed of their company.’ An example is contagious.
It is action or conduct which induces imitation. Children are naturally imitative: it is the way they learn. As adults, we retain that characteristic. In creating the right climate of purpose, unity and teamwork, how you bear yourself as a leader can be decisive.
‘You mention integrity as an important quality,’ a manager asked Lord Slim at a large conference for managers and directors. ‘Can you suggest how this quality can be spread in the industry?’ ‘Yes, by example,’ replied Slim.
Good example, then, has creative power, especially if it involves an element of self-sacrifice. It can work in people’s minds to alter their ways. That process may take time, but the leader whose example backs up his words puts him or herself in an unassailable position. No one can accuse them of hypocrisy, of preaching one thing and doing another.