Thursday, March 11, 2010

leading by talking

Whenever I came across the term leadership, I used to think that I understand what leadership means. But I could never articulate to me or to others what it really meant. What I understood by the word leader was someone who could convince others to follow him / her. And I also thought that it mostly applies to a leader who is political.


Then I started reading leaders and leadership in context of business, and thought that it mostly means someone who is boss of other people. So after a long confusion I decided to find the correct answer. IT was not easy, because it seems that leadership means different things to different people. For a few people leadership means taking initiative. For others it just means ability to boss around others. Stephen R. Covey in his book the eighth habit says leadership is the ability to help people to achieve their potential.


My next stop was Harvard Business review articles. I found that John P. Kotter, in his HBR article "What Leaders Really Do" puts it better. He says “the function of leadership is to produce change” And to achieve these changes, leaders have to find the direction of change, align people to work in that direction, and motivate those people to overcome obstacles. This definition seems broader than Stephen Covey’s definition, as the change could be either in people or in some situation.


Well, that leads us to an important question. How should one do these things? I.e. how to find the direction, align people, and motivate people? Often it happens by accident. Some big event convinces us that we need to do something to make a situation better, and that gives us our direction. Still most of us find it hard to align people and motivate others to work in that direction. But in a situation in which we are responsible to find a direction, the Serendipity method does not work.


The answer seems to be dialog. Dialog with the outside world, dialog with the people who are working with us in a particular direction. So if we talk to the world we get a better idea about the direction. And if we talk to the people who are working with us we may be able to find out what makes them tick and what are their apprehensions. What excites someone gives us an idea about how to align their passions with the chosen direction. And sometime we may also realize that the alignment is not possible at all. Knowing about someone’s apprehensions gives us early understanding about what could go wrong in a particular scenario. Our brain is very powerful. It can do pattern matching without taking notes. So if we keep the dialog open, we can sense intuitively what we should do in a given situation.


Given the above understanding, I find it amusing that many leaders in organizations don’t talk to their subordinates as much as they should do. Often people just communicate superficially, talking about the project in review meetings, or just talking formally about job issues. Unless people can talk to their leaders frankly (without worrying about impressions), leaders can never get true picture. Often leaders pretend to be busy. And don’t show up. And even if they show up, they just do it for the sake of formality.


My view is that in such an environment, sycophancy develops. Because the leaders might be talking to only those subordinates with whom they are comfortable, and those subordinates may just be behaving in order to please the leader, leaders end up alienating others. Many of us can readily find incidences in which the entire team seems to know that someone is good with his / her boss, but not so good with others, and the seniors seem to be oblivious about such traits.


Informal conversation with the broader population is the key for leaders to develop better understanding about the world and about their organization. In the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck, most of the discussion is around how to create more and more dialog among the employees. The book describes how dialog is institutionalized in GE, Honeywell and EDS. The central theme is dialog at various levels of the organization.


So leader’s main job is talking or making talking possible for others, and if the leader is working on other things, then leader’s job is being ignored.




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