The quality and nature of leadership is fundamental to the success of any organisation. Any organisation, be it a commercial business, public office or educational institution, stands or falls on the contribution of its leadership.
Look no further than the libraries of books and websites, blogs, podcasts and seminars devoted to the subject of leadership for evidence of how important we think this is. It seems almost every week I come across yet another person who, having demonstrated some degree of success as a leader in their former occupation is now venturing out as a ‘leadership coach’ in order to pass on the wisdom of her/his experience to other aspiring leaders.
While learning about leadership – the strategies, the techniques, the responsibilities etc. – can be extremely beneficial in helping build effective leadership, the fundamental aspect of leadership in my opinion is embedded in character. That’s not some you can teach – or necessarily learn about. It is developed over time, through the modelling we are exposed to from birth and is evident in the values we reflect in our day to day relationships with others and in the way we carry out our responsibilities.
My ‘top 3’ character traits of great leaders are:
1. Great leaders have vision
I was once told that great leaders are those who have vision, who are able to articulate that vision to others, and who demonstrate the qualities and character that motivate others to pursue that vision with them. Without a vision the leadership, and indeed the whole organisation, descends into a state of what I refer to as the ‘misery of managerialism‘. Without a strong, future focused and collaboratively owned vision driving an organisation forward, the focus with inevitably swing to the mechanics of managerialism – focusing on doing things right, instead of doing the right things.
2. Great leaders have a moral compass
It’s one thing to have vision, but it’s another to be able to pursue that vision with a moral compass. In a blog post I wrote about being a moral leader I described it as being about having a healthy level of self-awareness and self-respect and the acknowledgement that we have a definite, fundamental potential to do good in the world. In that same post there is a quote from Jim Loehr who says; “When executives win with character, not only will they build a leadership legacy that lasts, they will experience enduring feelings of fulfilment and satisfaction.”
3. Great leaders are relational
Too often leaders become focused on the transactional side of things – their main concerns being the expedient operation of the organisation, workflows, meeting deadlines, staffing etc. While these things are indeed important, it is the ability to maintain a focus on the people and to operate relationally that distinguishes a great leader. As I quoted David Giles in a previous blog, “relational leadership is not another style of leadership rather a ‘way of being’ in leadership.”
When these qualities are present there will inevitably be an ‘energy’ in the room. People feed off that energy and are motivated to pursue the vision along with the others. Innovation, creativity and thinking outside the box prevail, and obstacles are seen as opportunities, and any failures as simply another experience to learn from.
But when that energy stops feeding the system…
When these three things (or even one of them) is missing, it becomes difficult to sustain a dynamic approach to leadership. Things begin to slide backwards. Instead of energy in the room, a state of entropy prevails. I’m drawing here from my memory of high school science, where entropy is that state that exists where the energy feeding a system is shut off. It is a state of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty.
This is particularly evident in times of change. Great leaders provide the vision and inspiration to motivate others to approach change positively, to embrace uncertainty, remaining focused on the horizon rather than their feet. When that leadership isn’t there, there is an inevitable swing back to what was there before, the things that are familiar and a return to doing the things in the way(s) that worked then (even if it’s clear they don’t work now!).
Sadly, this leadership entropy is what plagues so many parts of our current education system – from the highest levels of our bureaucracy to the leadership of departments and syndicates in schools – and even to the level of teacher leadership in classrooms.
Signs this may be happening…
The following list provides just a snapshot of some of the things to look for as evidence that the destructive forces of leadership entropy may be present in the organisation you are associated with:
Focus on minutiae
When conversations that are aspirational and about vision are replaced by the tedium of ensuring all of the “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed. Many leaders have made an art form of this, arguing that they’re focused on ensuring quality, meeting targets and high performance – all things that will ensure their ‘ranking’ in external reviews etc. In the process they lose the confidence of many in their teams who might actually be capable of pursuing innovation in the organisation. Too much time devoted to weighing the pig, and not enough to feeding it and nurturing its growth.
Lack of time to focus on the ‘big issues’
As soon as leaders begin claiming to be time poor you know there’s a problem. Being time poor is a direct consequence of the focus on minutiae. If leaders aren’t taking the time to feed themselves, to be engaged in critical conversations with their peers, to be reading and critically examining the emerging trends that will inevitably impact their organisation they cease being effective in their leadership role.
We often read the glowing reports from successful organisations about the level of staff satisfaction, about the number of people wanting to work there and the devotion of staff to the cause, even in difficult circumstances. Much of this can be attributed directly to the quality of leadership – especially the relational kind mentioned above. When staff satisfaction drops, when there are more absences being taken, and when the number of personal grievances is on the rise, you know there’s a problem at the leadership level.
Being caught by surprise
Great leaders will be constantly scanning the horizon, observing trends and building scenarios to help prepare for the impact of change. Leadership entropy creates environments where leaders are chasing from one crisis to the next, frequently caught by surprise by things they didn’t see coming. This in turn drives an emphasis on minutiae, a pre-occupation with the short-term, instead of long-term thinking as I describe in my post about pedagogy of compliance.
What can be done?
The best advice I can think of is ‘be alert’!
If you are in a leadership role, make a conscious decision to be a leader driven by vision, guided by a moral compass and focused on relational forms of leadership. Make the time to look at what’s happening on the fringe, observe the trends, become informed, seek the wise counsel of others. If you find yourself defending your actions with arguments based on lack of time, ensuring quality, needing to do things right etc. reflect honestly on whether this isn’t simply a smoke screen, preventing you from changing your approach and tacking the hard stuff. If you are a principal, consider what you are doing in terms of your annual appraisal. What is the focus of your meetings with your appraiser? Is it on doing things right, ensuring all of the mechanics of the job are done well – or is it about challenging your perspectives, developing your vision, focusing on the relationships you have with your teams?
If you are in an organisation and are concerned about the direction of the organisation, or the support you are receiving in your work; if you are concerned because you recognise some of the signs mentioned above, then determine to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Instead of attacking the leadership, resorting to passive-aggressive behaviours or worse, simply hiding away and hoping it will all pass you by – don’t! Understand that in your own way you are also capable of demonstrating leadership. Find ways to communicate with those in leadership, take your ideas to them in a positive, well-constructed form. Reflect to them the sorts of leadership behaviours you would expect of them. You’ll be surprised what sort of impact this can have – not always immediately, but over time, as you build trust and demonstrate that you are focused on the same things as they are – the future of the organisation and the quality of service it provides to those it serves.
If enough of us are involved in doing this in our organisations then perhaps we’ll ensure the leadership of our organisations is kept in a state of energy – not entropy!