The problem with being a leader is that you’re never sure if you’re being followed or chased.
—Claire A. Murray
There are four key things we know about heroes from cinema experiences. We’ve addressed the cape issue and the hidden identity. The third is less obvious: to succeed you need to go “up.” Whether that’s climbing the outside of a tower block, flying up, or using a jet pack, up is the way to go.
We echo this myth in our organization structures and encourage people to climb the ladder of success. What gets conveniently ignored is that it’s like the board game, snakes and ladders. The time will come when you land on a square where the only way is down and out. And in today’s world of flatter organizational structures, it seems like the ladders have been taken away. All that’s left are the snakes.
“Excuse My Dust”1
The fourth central story is that superheroes may have flaws, but they succeed because they care, in contrast to the cold antiheroes who live in highly mechanized lairs and certainly don’t care about little old ladies. We carry this part of the story into organizations when we say that we need “well-rounded people,” equipped with all the social skills. This “rounding out” tends to mean fixing peoples’ limitations and, where possible, turning them into strengths.
Organizations aren’t so forgiving of the flaws, however, because they create waves of unrest. What they want are sociable people with superpowers of empathy and the competence to motivate others. The reality is that what they get are people with flawed humanity, who might be forgiven those flaws as long as they continue to deliver heroically. The quote (or misquote) “pardon my dust” by poet Dorothy Parker may have referred to signs noted on early motor cars. The drivers were aware that these new machines had the flaw of putting out pollution. It’s a paradox: on the one hand, the risk is that the flaws alienate; they push other talented people away. On the other hand, acknowledging that we’re all flawed, and acceptance of our own imperfections, can make it easier to accept those flaws in others. Once an individual has shown the right attributes in the development phase, they need to gain experience, to be able to deliver at their best. At the same time, we need to support their skill development so that they empathize with, and motivate, others to deliver their best, too. After all, leadership is a practice, not a theory.
One way to achieve more is to take personal responsibility down to the lowest level in the organization, and in this way, leaders don’t need to feel like lonely superheroes, denying their true identity. This “warts and all” approach may not be the prettiest. We want to present our best face—whether to colleagues, customers, or the boss. But it’s exhausting, and isolating.
A team doesn’t have to be a group of people with a leader at the top; it could be a group of people with an enabler, a project driver or facilitator, who just happens to be the first point of contact for management information—for seeding ideas or creating a forum for discussion and debate. It is also where everyone takes responsibility, for contributing each person’s strengths, for delivery, and for bringing out the best in each other. If the organization values these sideway moves, career progression doesn’t have to be only upward. It’s a very different definition of “leadership”—a world away from developing “well-rounded individuals.” Instead, it requires sharp individuals who, together, are willing to make up a well-rounded team, and not just to create the team but to dissolve it and reorganize when the time comes. In starlings, it’s called “murmuration.” It’s the time, in early evening, where thousands of birds flock together and perform the most amazing aerobatics. They are more than stunts; it’s a security and information activity combined. In humans, friction arises because perceptions of how leaders and teams could be, “should” be, and nostalgia for how it used to be are all different.
The Ultimate Deployment Tool: Leaders Developing Future Leaders
The scholarship of Harold M. Schroder and his research team is worth retelling here as it’s a fundamental underpinning to the way we need to define, discover, develop, and deploy leaders in today’s complex and uncertain world. This work inspired our leadership definition of context plus applying high-performing behaviors and a leadership style, relevant to that context. The team first looked at the literature on “trait” leadership—based on the hero or “great man” theory of leadership.
As you’d expect, we have an issue with any definition that excludes 51 percent of the world’s population, but that was the world they inhabited back then. They also looked at situational influences and peoples’ responses to those. The conclusion that led to the formulation of high-performing behaviors, or competences, was that a combination of the two is needed. They saw that leaders needed to be flexible because, of course, situations in different organizations are not constant; they’re unpredictable (even within an organization) and require different responses. The research team also predicted the increasing pace of change in the new technological era, its volatility, and uncertainty. This means that leaders need to flex their behaviors to succeed in uncertain and ambiguous situations. They saw the need for leadership development to be highly relevant to the daily life of leaders and for support to be put in place to ensure that they could be successful in those shifting situations.
For us this means taking some of the in-post learning and development support out of the classroom and as close to the coalface as possible, helping people to see the constants in the shifting VUCA World, and, more importantly, helping them to flex when there don’t seem to be any constants.
Most radical of all, Schroder saw every future leader as having a development plan.2 Firstly, he wanted to go further than simply “rounding out” limitations. Secondly, he wanted people to be aware of their own strengths and increase the contribution they made as leaders from those positions of strength. Thirdly, he wanted leaders and managers to capitalize on the “strengths of other workgroup members.”3 His team’s work was ahead of its time and remains so today. Yet the world around us shows us that it’s increasingly relevant because whereas Schroder researched in anticipation of VUCA World, today we’re living it.
Team and Leadership Murmurations
We see this flexibility when new organizations take strategic decisions on what they will insource and what they will outsource. We see this when they plan which organizations they will partner with to deliver goods and services and which goods and services will be created in house. We don’t think twice about buying a car that has been assembled under a brand name—yet most of the components have been supplied using “just in time” logistics services from many different sources around the world. We’re happy to choose one brand of smartphone over another, regardless of whether most of the components come from the same factory, and that brand B will have the same functionality. These arrangements are possible because component purchasers are willing to outsource responsibility and performance delivery to a third party. It’s another way of devolving responsibility to the lowest level and relies on three key elements: quality, security, and communications.
Our own organization, the Forton Group, has grown in this way. Like many agile organizations, we have international partnerships with expert partners on four continents, who rely on us to set and maintain quality leadership and coaching standards. Even if the organization size and structure permits, promotion into a new and even more responsible role may not be the answer.
There’s a structural step that organizations can take to support the experience development. And, in today’s flatter organizations, gaining wider experience—for example, by moving sideways, or diagonally, may be better deployment answers. Many organizations already do this, alongside other development activities, such as coaching, mentoring, and PALS (Peer Action Learning Sets, initially tutor facilitated) already mentioned.
I well remember my management training, a million years ago (!), which essentially consisted of working in each department in the company to gain an understanding and experience of what went on. I still feel great sympathy for many of those departmental leaders and managers having to put up with this person who clearly didn’t have the aptitude for their department’s technical specialty. And I am grateful to this day for the opportunities they gave me. I suspect I wasn’t the only person to sigh with relief when I found my niche in a mix of business planning, promotions, procurement, and facilities management. I was given the freedom to take significant decisions; I was supported by the extended network of the wider organization, and I discovered the power of strong business relationships—even when negotiations got tense. I also remember, as a woman, having role models around me against whom I could compare my own career path—what I did (and didn’t want) in my future. Many years before the “Lean In” phenomenon, I negotiated my own pay rise and managed procurement budgets in the millions. Yet I gave all this up because my career trajectory took me to University as a mature student. “Up” was not what I wanted.
Gaining experience can mean sideways or even diagonal moves across the organization. With flatter structures in today’s organizations, it’s also important to manage expectations of what “up” could look like. There was a period, in the 1980s and 1990s, when expectations of rapid promotion were the norm. Wage inflation went alongside expectation of greater status and responsibility. Before that, wages rose slightly each year and promotion was an occasional possibility, not an expectation. In today’s economy, wages rises and promotion expectations are dampened, with organizations expected to do more for less. Yet the desire to rise “up” continues. Partly because the pay gap between the lowest and the highest has grown ever wider, with CEO pay ratios of 300 times the “worker pay” being quoted.4
It’s not just that greed is an unattractive attitude; it also takes the focus away from the current role into positioning for exposure, attention, and future promotion. The desire to be seen to succeed, as solo hero, exceeds the desire to achieve as a team.
So when is the right time to support people to dive into the deep end? It is when technical experts show strong people management skills and demonstrate promise through the development program. Moving them into a people manager role might be exactly the challenge they’re looking for. Conversely, some technical experts will never show the attitude or aptitude for people management. In fact, it might be detrimental to good team work, morale, and delivery.
A strong project manager may need to develop his or her commercial or financial awareness and would welcome the opportunity to gain experience in that area of the organization. This notion may alarm some readers. The idea of “letting someone loose” as a manager in a commercial section without a strong background in that area doesn’t sit well with some people. Another way to support people to get this kind of pan-organizational experience, at low risk, is to use corporate social responsibility activities to gain wider experience.
For example, there’s nothing like the single-minded focus of a fundraising target and plan to develop innovation and commercial awareness. Knowing that a hospice or a children’s educational facility depends on these efforts is a great way to unlock people’s resourcefulness. They can gain real-world experience at the same time.
Again, there are risks. People need to appreciate that a charity isn’t a playground to try out their pet theories but a real-world challenge with vulnerable people depending on their skills and strengths. When we couple leader deployment with devolved operational responsibility to the lowest possible level, as recommended by Schroder, it’s clear that these leaders are there not to be operational experts but to support and guide team members to succeed.
It’s one of the biggest challenges in our leadership development programs—and one we throw in early on. We encourage people to explore a model that delegates the task and supports devolved accountability and responsibility to team members. If quality standards, security, and communication (the bedrock of risk management) aren’t in place, it’s easy to see that this is a scary place for new leaders to be in.
It challenges peoples’ sense of themselves, particularly their need to know and tell—to show that they’re the expert—especially when they first step into those roles. More experienced managers see the value of asking questions and being more coach like or mentor like. They know they’ll get more from their teams in this way. At the heart of the challenge is stepping into the zone of “not knowing.” It takes someone willing to have a “beginner’s mind” and the humility to know that team members have expertise that the person doesn’t.
We’re back to the willingness of the leader or manager to drop his or her egos and leave the hero myth behind. What both amazes and amuses us is that, with every group we work, at least one participant has a story to share about someone he or she knows who doesn’t have all the answers yet is still prepared to tell others what to do.
The Myth of the Well-Rounded Leader
So let’s challenge the myth of the need for a well-rounded leader. Our cinematic heroes have frail grandmothers to care for and whole populations to protect. Thankfully, they’re given superpowers that help them achieve these objectives and keep the world safe for humanity. For the rest of us, developing our empathy and sociability is heroic enough. We don’t need to have all the answers, but just the skill and humility to know who to ask and how to ask in ways that creates collaboration and better answers.
In Schroder’s terms, in interpersonal search it’s important to “find out what others are thinking and feeling.” This notion of collaborative team building in this way is still a radical idea today. We’re used to having a team of people around us—and there are many leaders and managers who resist the idea of virtual teams—it comforts people to be surrounded by “their” people.
The idea of creating cohesion across functions is still unusual, resisted by many managers. The notion that a job is a series of tasks, rather than a fixed role, is also challenging. The idea that tasks and roles might flex during the lifetime of a project is anathema to those people who like fixed timescales and budgets and clear job titles on the Gantt chart. We argue that organizations need sharp people leading “well-rounded teams.” That is, individual leaders who feel confident enough to lead teams through uncertainties and sudden turns. They build collaboration by consulting with people around them by not having all the answers. It takes a sharp and confident brain to do this. Under pressure, the pull is back to “command and control” and create an air of confidence (often false) by barking out commands and getting people into action. This is because, yes, people do feel more confident and in control when they take action. Even in these more urgent situations, maintaining a questioning and learning culture creates opportunities to embed better ways of working, rather than just one person’s preferred system. This is about getting to the right actions, via the right decisions. The leader must be sharp enough to stop and engage the team in thought, before getting into organized actions. This is the place for reflective practice. Reflection needs time and space. Taking time to reflect is an investment, not a weakness. This process of shared thinking works particularly well in the face of ambiguity. Encouraging the exploration of different options and looking at different perspectives will support clearer decision making. Those heroic movie moments when a protagonist declares “you have no choice!” are particularly irritating because they support the notion of binary thinking, which is rarely helpful in complex situations.
Yes, in puzzles there are single solutions. But, as we discussed at the beginning, VUCA World isn’t like that. So supporting leaders to succeed in this environment means accepting the reality of ambiguity in practical ways. It particularly helps at times of volatility. The risk is that people will engage in stop/start behaviors that throw projects and programs off course: first going one way; then another—prioritizing one course of action; then stopping that and prioritizing another.
I remember working to a deadline in the days when software developers wrote their own code. The project combined a number of venue seating and payment and booking operations that are common today, but then were cutting edge. Of course, the team members had the skills to deliver, but they also were overconfident about their ability to deliver in the available time and underprepared to accept the complexity. They also wanted to throw away the manual system, in a dramatic, boat-burning moment. I watched as the people supposedly “championing” the project ran for cover and my line manager trotted out his “back protection” routine. We delivered, with days to spare. But it taught me a valuable lesson in discovering who your real supporters are, as distinct from the people who are meant to be. Thirty years later, there are people who still have my back in delicate international challenges and continue to give their support when asked.
The Power of Asking as a Way of Supporting
Sharp individuals with enough influence and the willingness to consult with their colleagues in times of volatility can ensure that the leadership team work together for the benefit of the whole organization. When done well, this approach can tap into a range of perspectives. It particularly plays well to the strengths of people, often introverts, who prefer to be asked for their ideas and opinions, rather than offer them. It also balances out the exaggerated influence of those (extroverts) who speak up first, or most often, offering their ideas in meetings, without giving space to others.
The greatest payback from this collaborative approach is the support between leader and team. It’s inspirational to hear great ideas from others when we connect with the whole team and tap into their experience. It also promotes a genuine sense of empathy that we really are “all in it together.”
I once worked in a 1,500-strong department. We had a poor reputation and a new manager came in to “sort us out.” One of his first actions was to get the top 50 managers together for a meeting. This spanned a couple of levels in the hierarchy, and so we were a little surprised when he announced we were all now working as direct reports to him. In that first meeting, he asked,
“OK, so who is interested in how we run the department’s finances?”
About ten people put their hands up.
“Great. You’re the finance committee. Now, who is interested in people?”
I put my hand up along with another ten or so.
“Great. You’re the people committee.”
“I’m here if you need me, but I expect you to just crack on and do those roles.”
We had all the support and power we needed—he genuinely had delegated and not abrogated. The reputation of the organization improved. And my new career in leadership development was launched. Twenty years later, we still meet up socially every 3 months or so. Not everyone, but many people still show up. We chatted about his approach at one of those social events. He said he’d been advised that the best way to sort the unit out was to sack the top 50 and start again, but that was never really an option. He had also been told that he wasn’t allowed to have so many direct reports, but he decided to do it anyway. What he achieved was to tap into what we enjoyed doing and play to our individual strengths; at the same time, he encouraged us to work together as a fully functioning team. My recollection is that we had fun while also taking the work seriously, and this once-failing department became a central pillar of the organization.
Whatever the exact model in your organization, the general direction is clear. It’s what 21st-century workplaces demand. There’s no longer a single career path leading to a seat on the Board. Rather it’s a series of several, very different career options, from operational delivery to technical expert, to tutor or coach, to leader or manager, at each step applying a range of leadership behaviors to keep the team on track. Once we can envisage this flexibility for ourselves, we can also find new ways to energize others, holding hold high expectations about other peoples’ potential and the expectation that they will take ownership and responsibility for what they contribute. Seeing the role of the leader as someone providing resources, support, and feedback to team members, rather than being some kind of higher level of life form, set apart from the rest. These flatter hierarchical structures also challenge the notion of automatic right to a promotion, or even to pay increases or bonuses based purely on experience.
What “Experience” Really Means
It’s an old adage to ask whether someone with 20 years’ of experience is really more of an expert, or just someone with one year’s experience twenty times. The intention isn’t to denigrate experienced people, but rather to challenge what we reward—because where money is concerned if you allocate a financial value to a behavior, people will demonstrate it. It’s at the heart of transactional leadership—“if you do enough of this, then we’ll reward you with more money.” Some people will plot their moves out on the board game, which is your organizational structure, purely on the basis that they’re heading for where they perceive the best combination of challenge, power, and reward lies for them. It’s a key reason why women (generally) don’t thrive in this masculine model of hero leadership. Because (and I generalize here) this kind of “gaming the system” is meaningless and unfulfilling. Sharp leaders will use empathy to find out what does matter to people who prefer a different kind of transaction and help shape their roles to meet those career aspirations. Just because some people have competitive tendencies in their careers doesn’t mean everyone does. Getting to the heart of peoples’ career drivers can bring out the best in people—again, tapping into and releasing their potential. This “manager as coach” approach uses coaching skills like empathy, listening, and powerful questioning to uncover and support peoples’ career aspirations. And it supports them to deliver their best in their current role.
It’s time to get off the snakes and ladders board. To challenge the myth that says we develop people to go up the organization. It’s time to give people a broader range of options, including to go across or diagonally. Yet challenging this myth demands change in other areas. If the organization structure is flatter, then responsibility needs to be devolved to the lowest possible level. Easier to do when tasks are outsourced—because necessity demands it—than when the tasks remain within the team. Too often the leader will cling on to responsibility and neglect to tap into the team’s talents and experience. Collaborative, inclusive, abundant leadership depends on skills of empathy and understanding others, which is why a simple place to start is by asking others for their opinions and experience.
This challenge shifts the role of the leader from someone who is expected to know everything and tell others what to do, to someone who can invite the opinions of others, without the expectation or burden of having to come up with all the answers. It challenges the myth of developing a cadre of well-rounded leaders and enables them to be more themselves: sharp people leading well-rounded teams.
This chapter explores the notion of “well-rounded people” and the desire to iron out the wrinkles, rather than accept sharp individuals who, working together, are willing to make up a well-rounded team. So here’s a few questions to ask yourself as you review this chapter:
- •What generic headings might go into a personal development plan for all our staff?
- •How might we stretch and challenge people?
- •How do we deal with “sharp people” in our organization? And how might we support them better?
- •How might we really get the best from people, without putting them into a “talent pool” or onto a pedestal?
1.“Excuse my dust” a suggested epitaph by poet Dorothy Parker quoted in Vanity Fair magazine, 1925.
2.P.150 H.M. Schroder, Managerial Competence.
3.Ibid., p. 32.