Recently, I came across an article from Business Insider suggesting that Australian managers don’t have what it takes to be leaders. The fact that the LinkedIn study revealed almost two thirds of HR decision makers are pessimistic about the hiring outlook for leaders is sadly not a surprise to someone who works as a consultant in that industry.
Before going any further, it’s worth distinguishing the difference between a manager and a good leader that businesses are craving. In simple terms, managers manage tasks while leaders influence people through their actions and behaviours.
To elaborate, any team or organisation has two key elements to it:
- The ‘mechanics’ – technical skill, procedures, KPIs, roles/responsibilities;
- The ‘dynamics’ – culture and behaviours.
Managers don’t stray too far from the mechanics whereas a good leader will drive the dynamics while also ensuring there are skilled people to get the job done.
What qualities do good leaders share?
In sessions with management/exec teams we often ask them to think of a trait of a leader they admire. And every time we do it, the results are strikingly similar. Caring, empowering, shows genuine interest, walks the talk, challenging, engaging, trusting…the list goes on.
Of course, this then gives participants a chance to reflect on how they stack up against the list. They are also quick to deduce that the contents of the list sit entirely in the dynamics space. Never has anyone said ‘he/she was a technical genius’. Because that’s not what we value in our leaders. It’s not what engages us nor inspires us.
So why are we so bereft of these quality leaders? The answer is pretty straight forward. We don’t, or at least traditionally haven’t, valued or put time and energy into this dynamics space. In recruiting, in promoting, in retaining, in inducting. It hasn’t been on our radar, either because its seen as soft ‘fluff’ or, more often, because it’s out of our comfort zone.
When quizzed on what percentage of time organisations spend in the mechanics space as opposed to the dynamics, clients’ answers generally range from 90 to 99%. Similarly, when we recruit or promote the focus has historically been on technical ability. Yet Richard Branson advocates ‘recruit on attitude and train them up’. Seems to have worked ok for him.
I recently worked with a team whose leader was the main issue and the team was highly dysfunctional as a result. When the leader’s supervisor was describing the non-productive behaviour this leader was displaying, I asked what seemed like the obvious question: ‘how the hell did he get there in the first place?’. The response was predictable – no one really stood out and he was the best technician, so he was promoted to the role. The supervisor seemed almost embarrassed to be saying it out loud.
The right skills for leadership
The corporate world could do well to learn from the sporting industry on this one. Many sporting organisations worked out years ago that being the best player didn’t necessarily make you the best captain (as had been the norm historically).
Clearly, there has to be a competency in this space, but successful AFL captains such as Brett Kirk, Tom Harley and Nick Maxwell would be obvious examples of leaders who weren’t the most talented in their teams. They’d be first picked by their peers though.
The upside to the survey results is that at least we are talking about it now. We are finally becoming conscious of our gaps in this area. For a long time, we have been blissfully naive to this significant issue. Awareness at least gives us a chance to do something about it and stop rewarding sales or technical ability at the expense of culture.
Because as Chris Pash says in his article, “The winners in today’s business world are fully engaging and inspiring their people, while the losers are not. It’s that simple.”