There must be something wrong with the topic of “leadership”. That’s the only way I can explain it. Scribes have written about it for decades, and managers have long since been sent on mandatory seminars as part of their company’s development program – with the accompanying certificates to show for it. Nevertheless, it seems that many leaders are failing to make significant progress. That, at least, is the perception of the staff they lead, as reported in employee surveys (and by the leaders themselves). Why is that? We have two theses and a solution approach which has a proven track record in our consultancy work.
Professional experts, who have consistently delivered excellent results, are made managers. Merely because the company wants to reward their performance, and there is only one career path within the organisation. Managers get paid more money, have enhanced status (office size, company car, company phone etc.), and better access to strategic issues and meetings. And so, the expert is appointed manager, and is thus responsible for managing staff.
The result disappoints everyone: superiors, the manager and the managed. As a manager, I’m supposed to coordinate things, and let others get on with the operational work – but no one knows the business like I do, so even in my new role, I’m still the expert. And that’s what I try to be, stretching myself across all the business, attending a lot of meetings, all the while correcting and criticizing.
So that’s frustrating for my staff; it gets annoying when the boss is always telling them how to do their job; they are the experts, after all. And on top of that, I’m supposed to “manage correctly” – that’s what my boss expects, anyway.
Managers often agree to or are given targets. These are mostly performance related – a mixture of results from their own organizational unit or the upper hierarchy level, as well as a small profit share from the company’s overall results. Unrealistic targets from top management can lead to unrealistic demands for results at lower management levels. As a manager, I’ll have to stretch myself to the limit to meet the targets – or at least be no worse than my colleagues.
True leadership targets don’t even make the list. These might include a behavioural goal, letting other staff members chair team meetings for the year under review; and ensuring documented feedback on the meetings, analysing this with the respective participants, and agreeing on and sticking to optimization measures.
The message is being sent out that leadership should somehow just happen. But since it’s not being reflected upon, and it won’t affect my bonus, it’s a topic that has no bearing on my success.
Leadership is not a tool, nor a box of tricks. It is the decisive issue that cuts across companies at every level, influencing every part of the operation. Leadership is a methodical approach for dealing with people and groups – their diversity and dynamics, as well as their potential, their emotions and conflicts. Leadership is coordination, management and supervision of performance gains.
And successful leadership work is based on self-reflection; the willingness of leaders to work on themselves, and get a better handle on their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour, to know their capabilities and fallibilities – and to use this insight for their own development. You have to want to do that. It can’t be done on command.
But anyone who embarks on this path can discover great development opportunities: For their own behaviour and personality, for achieving their goals, for results in their department, and ultimately for the whole company.