In my 25 years of life as a facilitator, endeavouring to help teams improve, I have seen a trend among leaders that I have found puzzling. Many leaders appear to be caught in the “Land of Knowing”. They can often recite leadership buzz words or the latest leadership theories and models but when you look at their performance it may be well below what they have the potential to achieve.

Whistling dog

Action is more valuable than theory

This raises the question – ‘Why would leaders who have so much knowledge seem to avoid the leap from knowing to doing?’

I believe the two traps for leaders in avoiding action are complacency and fear.

There is a saying I came across many years ago and I still see its relevance today – “Those with the most invested are always the last to surrender”. I think this provides the back drop for better understanding complacency. To me complacency in leadership is not laziness. It has much more to do with the sense of investment into the organisation the leader has and subsequently the level of investment he or she can create in their teams and people. In his book ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins says “Good is the enemy of great”. Many leaders I have seen run “good” businesses. Being great requires risk and action. It would seem professional suicide if a leader said, ‘near enough is good enough for us’. If this is the deep seated attitude, theory is in fact the buffer to taking action.

Fear can also drive lesser leaders to the land of theory. When a leader reaches the point of intuitively knowing what the problems are in their organisation, it is sometimes safer to theorise than to act. Unfortunately many other team members know the signs of mediocrity or avoidance. Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into”.

These two reasons alone have always served as a reminder to me to be more a servant to help leaders to take action than to be another consultant who adds to the avoidance by putting more layers of theory over the actions required.

High Performing Team Model v1

The High Performing Team model

I reiterate that knowledge/enquiry/research/education is vital. The challenge I find in balancing knowledge and action is to distil thinking into a useable philosophy around leadership, teamwork and high performance. Even though I have written two books on the topic, I have always challenged myself to be able to present the basis of our theory on one page when engaging with a client.

One of the reasons I opted to grow Leading Teams and not remain a sole trader/consultant was so I could empathise with prospective clients. Being able to share experiences (particularly around failings) is useful.

Listening and trying to understand potential clients has also been paramount. However, you serve little value if the conversation drifts to theory rather than discussing the team and their issues. I recall being at a client meeting, some time ago, with one of my Leading Teams colleagues and I had drifted to theorising with the client a bit too much. After a short pause, my colleague jumped in and said, “OK, so what really keeps you awake at night?” The client listed all of the things. We could then map out a plan to take action. Again, this was a great lesson for me about the balance. It was as though my colleague had thought, “Enough theory Ray, now time for action.”

In one session with the Senior Leadership Team of a large organisation with around 500 employees, we were drifting with theory a bit too much and the group and I knew that as well. Part of the theory we were discussing was the benefit of openness in a team. This team knew the theory but also knew they were nowhere near being open with each other. Then one women on the team said (out of frustration), “OK Ray, so you want the truth about this team?” As the facilitator I had to put some structure (and safety) around her comments and whilst they were confronting, you could almost sense the relief in the team. The feedback at the end of the day was all related to the productive shift people had experienced when we moved from theory to action.

Another experience also taught me that anyone can take up the challenge to act. Leadership and improving team performance is not just the charter of senior managers. I had a client within the water industry and was working with both the administration and operational departments. The operations employees were responsible for ensuring people have access to clean water. When I was first invited in to the organisation they had been running with an external program designed to look at continuous improvement. The problem was that the operations staff had not really bought in. Often in areas where you have operations staff, management can use the excuse that “They don’t really want to engage in this stuff, they just want to do their job”. To their credit, management decided to give me an opportunity to work with what I found to be a cynical bunch of tradies. They had heard the theory and it was a case of ‘no thanks’.

I opted for a more action-based approach – limited theory and no models. I just asked questions like, “What behaviour do you see on your team that pisses you off?” They reeled off the list and then we begin to develop the plan of action. In particular starting to have the conversations with the blokes who wouldn’t clean their utes or the people who didn’t replace tools, etc. In the end, we made the connection that if they addressed some of these behaviours they would hit their KPIs and this was what the “theory” of continuous improvement was all about.

Unfortunately I have been in sessions where, for a number of reasons, the group have deferred to theory to avoid action. One of the common reasons is that it was simply not safe enough to open. In these cases, pushing a group to develop action plans is a waste of time. Plans which are developed without people being able to engage in open dialogue end up with flaws built in. Stepping back and building trust so the group can move forward is usually the most productive strategy in this case.

What does give me great satisfaction is that even today, when I am nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I am still as passionate about keeping the balance between knowing and doing. I had a colleague 20 years ago send me a cartoon with two young boys in the frame. One had his pet dog with him and he said to his mate, “I taught my dog to whistle”. After some time his mate says, “I can’t hear him.” His friend replies (somewhat indignantly), “I said I taught him – he didn’t learn a thing.”

If you’re looking for high level performance, convert theory to practice.


Ray McLean

Ray McLean

Ray founded Leading Teams in 1992 after working as a leadership officer with the Air Force. He has published two books, ‘Any Given Team’ and ‘Team Work’. Ray is based in Geelong.

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