Especially when there is upset within or changed external conditions, a leader’s job, like the captain of the ship, is to lead from the bridge. The way the misleader sees it, their job is to have their binoculars out, looking at the surrounding conditions. They need to be close to where the controls are, able to ring for a “Full astern!” or a “Hard to port!” when that is required. It is up to others to make sure that the nuclear rods are in the reactor, that the motors are lubed.
Misleaders are usually content to lead from the bridge and that is all.
True leaders lead from the bridge AND they recognize that they have a duty to know of any matter that will interrupt, empower or stop the organisation from pursuing its chosen direction.
Unless one is operating in a one person organisation, or the leader is omniscient, true leaders need to rely on others to know what is going on. To know the emerging issues, what is not working, what has just blown up, what is happening to take corrective action, what contingency plans are in place, what learning is occurring, to better prepare and protect the organisation in the future.
Sometimes reporting and monitoring systems can give this information automatically. But even in those cases leaders need to rely on interpretations and proposals from their people to be able to make or approve decisions in response to that information. There is no substitute for actually talking to people in words, in a related way that encourages people to be relaxed and honest in their conversations, so that the leader can not only get real information but also a feel or a pulse for the organisation.
A good test for whether a leader is interacting sufficiently with the people in the business is to find what middle managers think. A common mismanagement behavior in this arena is to treat middle managers as mushrooms – keep them in the dark and feed them the proverbial!
We see “middle management” to include everyone below the CEO down to the first line supervisors. While some PR/communications advisors caution leaders to think and act carefully about this forgotten cadre, many focus too much on prompting the CEO to make messages that go externally, upwards and right down to the base of the organisational pyramid. They forget that it is the middle managers who translate the messages and the underlying strategy and leadership directions into working tactics. To the extent that middle managers don’t know, can’t interpret and can’t make trusted evaluations for their people about what the leadership intends and how genuine they are, results at ground level will always be sub-optimal.
I once worked for a fine leader who recognized that I had a good feel for the climate in the business and the functional area I was responsible for leading. He visited our business three or four times a year from overseas. Our company practice was to pick up visitors from the airport and spend as much time with them as was feasible. Colin’s invariable approach when he was settled in the car was to ask,
“Ian, how’s morale?”
This was a great question because it gave him a quick study on the climate at the plant. I quickly realized that there was another benefit for him in this question too. I could not answer it without honestly disclosing my own emotional state. The beauty of it for both of us was that I got to give him an honest assessment and he protected me from getting too much into personal territory, if I didn’t want to go there. During his visits on-site he would ask the same question of many of those he met, giving him confirmation of common themes and insights into new issues.
Great leaders make it a practice to have face to face conversations with a targeted number of their people each day, or at least weekly. Even just passable leaders don’t rely on one-way communications such as emails, newsletters or group meetings. All of these are adjuncts, not substitutes. Good leaders talk with people. The people will appreciate it and leaders get relatively unfiltered information that will allows them to see trends.
I will always remember a negotiations training film made years ago by John Cleese. He played a union shop steward. At one point he turns to the camera and says something like:
“Now here’s a turn up for the books: we’ve been in negotiations for three weeks and finally Mr X is going to come down from on high and talk to us. In words! Face to face! He might even show he is human enough to come and have a pint with us and actually hear what this is all about….”
Author: This post is by Ian Sampson (B.Comm., LLB., FAICD, FAIM). Ian is a Cause & Effective Associate (www.causeandeffective.info). He is a Strategic Advisor to Boards, an Executive Coach and a Facilitator of our Powerful Leadership in Action Program. He can be contacted here.