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Taking Action

The change from ground state to the goals described in the previous section is the sum of many discrete actions taken after change has been thought about and decisions about what to do have been made.

The very best leaders are people of action and are passionate about getting results. This was discussed in chapter 1. The very best leaders are energetic, hard-working, and believe strongly in continuous learning. When the word “action” is used to describe the nature of leadership, many think of a charismatic, hard-driving, extroverted workaholic. Actually, there are many personality descriptors of leaders. The one just mentioned is outdated; indeed, it has been found that leaders who can be described that way are less successful in the long term than the Level 5 leader personality described by Jim Collins in Good to Great.1 For Collins, a Level 5 leader is someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” My interpretation of Collins' and my own experience in observing leaders at every level is that character is more important than personality. Behaviour must be purposeful, not ego driven. The best leaders have learned the skills, character attributes, and purposeful behaviours that they require to inluence other people to act.

Thinking about Future States

I have asked many people to deine leadership. I have done so in classrooms and at conferences attended by CEOs. In the right place, at the right time, it is a good conversation starter because everyone has an opinion and the answers vary widely enough to stimulate debate.

I have never said no to any answer I hear, or at least I haven't yet in all my question-and-answer sessions. And those answers have ranged from “telling people what to do” through “operating the business” to “describing a vision,” to “changing things.” After a long discussion, most people are comfortable with the working deinition I offer in this book: leadership is inluencing people to make positive change. But that comfort is short lived because many people next want to understand precisely what those words mean. They especially want to know what the nature of the work is: what leaders think about and do.

1 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don't

(New York: Harper Business, 2001). The discussion of “making positive change” is an opportunity to introduce “direction” and “future state” as important leadership topics. I tell the group that the most unique aspect of leadership as an activity is that it looks towards the future and takes a future-oriented perspective to inluence people to carry out changes.

The best leaders are able to create inspiring targets for the work of others. A leader who is an engineer knows that the purpose of building a bridge across a river may be to build the best bridge in the world or to build a better bridge than the last. But a more inspiring purpose is to build that bridge so that people can enjoy the other side of the river and thereby improve their lives.

The best leaders set targets for their change work. Those targets provide a direction for the work that others and the leader do. They provide direction for everyone on the team and for their goals as individuals. The alternative is a large number of projects that have little direction, which leads to ineficiency and ineffectiveness.

Focusing entirely on building bridges to cross rivers will lead to eficient results – to low-cost, high-quality, rapid construction of bridges that cross rivers. Effectiveness is different; it means working on bridges that are designed to do many different things, such as cross rivers or cross rough terrain or cross deep canyons. Or it could mean building all-stone bridges, for example, or suspension bridges that use and require a variety of technologies.

Leaders are more focused on effectiveness. That is because when we aim for effectiveness, we ind ways to develop bridge-building technology and we thereby become capable of extraordinary things, such as building bridges over ever-wider rivers. When we choose our targets intelligently, our business can focus on growing through innovation. Focusing on effectiveness will always lead to eficient results: it is a two-for-one proposition.

The very best leaders are future looking in that way. They are motivated to succeed, and they are capable of setting extraordinary targets for their followers. And when they can do that, they earn the admiration of others. Surveys have shown that this is one of the most admired attributes of leaders.

A target can be more speciic or less so: which one depends on the level of positive change – whether it is incremental, continuous, or transformational (see chapter 1).

A company of leader-engineers who do transactional work (i.e., incremental or continuous improvement work) associated with building bridges over rivers will require a more speciic target, such as “Become the lowestcost builder in North America.”
A company of leader-engineers working on getting people across wide spaces will beneit from transformational change targets that are much less speciic, such as “Become the mover of people over wide expanses.” A target like that allows the freedom to innovate, to be creative, and to grow in an orderly way. It inspires people to build on each success and on each goal that is successfully achieved.

When the target for a future state offers more freedom, people can move in a direction that is somewhat less clear. This in turn allows a variety of less speciic actions to be taken, though the steps can still relect order. The keywords here are order and freedom:

Order involves a high degree of organization and precision in making things function effectively. It is achieved by limiting choices.

Freedom is about choice. It includes allowing choices in learning, thinking, and functioning and making these choices when doing work.

A number of future state targets can be discussed along the order-tofreedom continuum. The two poles of the future state continuum are planning and aspiring. Somewhere between these two extremes is visioning, which will be discussed at length in the third part of this book.

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