There’s so much been published on leadership. Web pages, training courses and blogs are awash with information. But most of it is advice by folk who’ve neither done it, nor studied it to any degree; folk who’ve never actually been responsible for the successes and failures of a team of men and women. Those commentators should realise that initiatives are the platform for leadership.
It’s easy for these authors to talk about components of leadership, saying that “leaders should…”. It’s easy to train would-be leaders in one or two aspects of leadership, like that’s all there is to know for success! And it’s easy to stereotype, like claiming that leaders should have charisma. Not all leaders need charisma.
But let’s park all this dialogue on “leaders should…”. Let’s get to what work the leader should engage in today that they didn’t do yesterday, when they were just one of the team.
We postulate here that this work involves initiatives and that these initiatives are the platform for leadership.
Leadership is all about changing the behaviours of followers to achieve improved business outcomes.
The crux of the change is that leaders can’t lead without contact with their followers.
So leadership begins by having contact; by having meaningful conversations with those that the leader needs to influence. That’s a big step forward. We can now propose leader activities that will enable those conversations, like that old-fashioned activity of ‘management by walking about’.
But having meaningful conversations presupposes that there’s something to say.
Opportunities for meaningful conversation
That brings us to the most important aspect of the leader’s work: generating opportunities for those meaningful conversations. In daily business, there’s one single major occasion for conversation: dialogue about the progress of initiatives.
All things being equal, a business can sustain its performance without change. But things aren’t equal. The environment is changing around the firm and hence change is essential just to stand still. Initiatives are needed to improve productivity, increase quality and get more customers on board. Initiatives are always needed to build the firm’s competitive advantage.
So the leader must understand the business, then analyse performance to determine where improvement can be made. Initiatives then enable that improvement. The leader’s first task therefore is to develop a number of initiatives. Initiatives that encompass all the folk the leader needs to influence and that permit those meaningful conversations.
Initiatives are projects. They have owners, specifications, plans, activities and outcomes.
The house we build
Now, suggesting that leaders find initiatives that realise progress and enable meaningful conversations would be a laudable end point. But there’s much more.
In his book “The Home We Build Together” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks relates how God commanded the Israelites to “build something together”. It’s said that this simple command transformed the Israelites.
This is an interesting story with a key meaning with great importance to leaders. During the construction of the tabernacle the Israelites built together, complaints diminished. Everyone contributed. And a great result was realised – they built a nation. Sacks suggests that this principle of building, of the use of initiatives to enable people to work on projects together, should be applied to society as a whole – a bigger issue, perhaps!
Initiatives are the platform for leadership
For now, back to the argument. It’s one thing to exhort what leaders should do, the approaches they should take and the styles they should embrace. It’s a different issue to say how, in practice, day by day, they should do this.
The story of the Israelites gives a central clue. Leaders should find initiatives for improvement; houses to build together with their followers. The problems, issues and failings in the firm provide rich sources of initiatives. And if management can’t find problems, they need to take off their blinkers!
Initiatives give opportunity for leaders to intervene. Intervention allows the leader to influence. Influence changes follower behaviour and competencies. Changes in behaviour and competencies enable change in organisational outcome.
It’s easy to see that initiatives are the platform for leadership.
Some improvement comes from the completion of the initiative alone, but the improvement is multiplied hugely by the quality of leader intervention, realising organisation cohesion and cooperation.