The language we use is telling. We don’t ever ‘lead decline’ or ‘manage success’. We do the opposite – we ‘manage’ decline and ‘lead’ any success.
In business it’s binary – you’re doing one or the other. If you are in a corporate structure the likelihood is you are managing decline. If you have opted for the autonomy to write your own rules then you have more of a chance to lead a success.
We don’t have to go far to find terrible leadership. This is primarily due to people who find themselves in positions of power who confuse leadership with management. So we are clear about the difference let’s define both practices:
The differentiator between the two is that one is a stipulated process whilst the other is a largely untested action. One is based on protocol, the other is based on (timeless) principles and the present moment. Process is limited – action is limitless. And exciting. And creative.
The world is currently over-managed and under-led.
Sadly today some of the best leaders aren’t leading and tragically some of the best managers have been rewarded with leadership positions.
Humanity is now preoccupied with control, process and frameworks. We can all recall when we have been hired to do a specific job only to be waylaid by a manager who ‘reins you in’ so to ‘keep control of the process’. It’s a daily corporate occurrence and one of the reasons creative agencies and marketing teams are increasingly defunct. This is also why organisations reliably lose their best talent – many of them are reduced to mere operators.
The three fields where the leadership fail is most pronounced are ironically the three ‘industries’ that – according to psychologist Oliver James – attract the most dysfunctional personality types. They are media, banking and politics. We only have to look at the state of those fields or their practices and products to realise that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
The outcome? A media that has lost all credibility, a banking system that has reflated the biggest credit bubble in human history and a political class who have peddled institutional deceit to accommodate the media and the banks. An unholy trinity.
Many of these problems can be traced to putting management (and the diffuse responsibility that poor management often relies on) ahead of leadership. Proper leaders, for instance, embrace delegation but retain responsibility for the task. Poor management identifies scapegoats.
The lesson is simple: frameworks and control cannot – and do not – replace critical thinking, intuition, creativity and responsibility.
Unfortunately business, like politics and banking, has embraced short termism to solve long-term issues. This has indoctrinated many into thinking in narrowly defined, self-interested silos. Thinking in silos instead of holistically breeds a mentality (and culture) of scarcity. It also means that in most meetings everyone feels they should know everything.
A necessary digression: the two most confining words in the English language are ‘I know’. This closed mindset does not allow new information to be converted into knowledge then into value and – only then – into money or results.
So here is a leadership idea: why not open the next presentation or meeting with this: “No-one really knows – but collectively we have the ability to discover a solution and create something to serve a real world need.”
Think about what you have just done with that statement…
You have just engaged the people who you’ll need to make good strategic leadership decisions. Why? Because the critical thinkers in the room will respond to that honesty and the implicit challenge to create something useful. These people want to be trusted and nurtured so they can solve difficult problems. If you are lucky enough to have them in your meeting – use them – do not manage them to fit your limiting expectations or a meaningless big data scrape.
Another digression: the words “I don’t know yet” – far from being an admission of weakness or naivety – are actually full of potential.
Many organisations that demanded academic excellence for their people ‘to lead’ now, ironically, face a well-publicised ‘war for talent.’ This is because most of their ‘best people’ have been educated out of the leadership skills necessary to respond to an increasingly transparent world. When IBM recently surveyed 1,900 CEO’s they all cited creativity and adaptability as the two most important qualities future leaders must possess. Culturally most corporations aren’t configured to nurture or develop these skills.
If we want better leadership we have to go back to basics and work with raw talent that has not been trained out of their intuition so to fit an increasingly obsolete system. This cannot be done theoretically. You have to learn by doing and failing and winning daily.
If you are successfully leading the chances are you have hired people better than you at their jobs and you are holding a space in which they can thrive. If you are managing decline the chances are you’re inundated. You’ll have unconsciously created and politicised a chain of command. You’ll be making all the decisions and impeding the natural inclinations and talents of your team.
If the future is going to be better led, and therefore better managed, we need to accept that management is secondary. We also have to accept that we should all be working daily on our personal leadership and ourselves because no effort in in this area is ever wasted. This means rediscovering timeless leadership principles and being at ease with the natural uneasiness that leadership brings. This will begin to reinvigorate the art (not science) of leadership. And with that art restored, everything else then becomes manageable.
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