Leadership is about people, always about people. It is not about having the best strategy, or the best vision or even the best solutions. It is about connecting with people. If a leader also has the best strategy, vision and solutions – so much the better – but leadership is, above all, a contact sport. The more deeply a leader can connect with more people, the more influential they will be as a leader.
I have been doing some fascinating work recently with the leadership team of a business at exactly that critical size of about 50 people. They are at exactly the size where the fundamental barrier to growth is delegation. We opened our first session by easily identifying all of the characteristics of great leaders, but as is so often the case, the killer questions is “so how much of your time is spent doing it?”.
We all know what good leadership looks like, but making the transition from doing the operational stuff ourselves, to trusting others to do it is a big one. Many of us get into leadership roles and then try to add a little bit of leadership around the edges while maintaining direct operational participation. Often “leaders” will describe their time split being 70 – 8o% operational and 20-30% leadership. I would argue this is exactly the wrong way around.
Given that on the whole we promote on the basis of technical skills rather than people skills, it should not be all that surprising that we end up where we do. We might also find we would have significantly more women in senior roles if we promoted on the basis of people skills.
Two phases of leadership
Phase one is the set up phase. This does not only happen at the beginning, but happens any time there is a need to evaluate strategy and vision. In this phase the role of a leader is to create alignment around a vision, strategy, set of values and so on. Ideally these are arrived at collaboratively, but they don’t need to be. There will always be others who join the team after the vision has been set and are buying in to something that was created by others.
Some leaders may feel that they need to come up with the vision and sell it, others will draw the vision from the group and align the team around it. Either way the skill is in creating the alignment with the people, far more than coming up with the vision.
Phase two is the delivery or execution phase, which is likely to be the majority of the time. For this phase leaders need to be in more or less permanent coaching mode. It is the team who will deliver the results and lifting the team to their best performance is the job of the leader. The tool for achieving this is coaching. It requires a sensitivity to how people are feeling and their level of motivation, which means listening to and being part of the ongoing team conversation. And it requires input – sometimes subtle and supportive, sometimes challenging and stretching.
Thought leader vs leader of people
This is the essential difference between a thought leader and a people leader. A thought leader strategises, comes up with great ideas and, if we are lucky, communicates them. A people leader connects with people, empowers them and lifts them to their greatest performances.
When business growth or career progression stall, it is very often because our leadership focus is on the technical and strategic rather than the people. It is simple maths to realise that even if we are the most skilled at our particular role in the organisation, if we can get just two people to be 80% as good as that through great leadership, they will deliver more than we can. If we can get a diverse team collaborating well and fully aligned, delivering peak personal performance and consistent team performance – this is when we get break throughs. This is only ever achieved by leaders who focus on the people rather than doing operational stuff themselves.
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