The drafters of the Declaration of Independence were clear that “We the people”, not “We the leaders”, would be the primary beneficiaries of their efforts and of the Revolution. The effectiveness of their message and actions lie in part in the closeness of their connections and connectedness.
If we look at an Olympic sporting environment, no Olympic Head Coach or football performance director would think that they can do their job without understanding how athletes are feeling, what they are experiencing on a daily basis, and how they are performing.
Yet when looking at the organisational world, why do some leaders in organisations allow themselves to get disconnected from their people, from what employees are thinking and feeling, and from understanding what their hopes and fears are. Why is there such a gap and how can we reconnect leaders? Answering this requires us to look at how organisations typically function at present and consider how they might need to function in the future.
Who are the Leaders?
The separation in language, in structure and in experience between ‘leaders’ and ‘the rest of the people’ illustrates the division that has developed. Traditionally, leaders have been seen as those at the top of an organisations’ hierarchy, and ‘the people’ are lower down. Increasingly, in a world with more complex challenges, this thinking holds back performance. The boardroom is not populated by superhumans (or robots – yet) but by ordinary people, and leadership is something that is increasingly required at all levels of our organisations regardless of job title or rank.
Leadership development is still typically saved for those in the higher grades of an organisation, despite the much broader need for initiative, teamwork and fresh thinking at all levels. In our fast-paced world of change, the best ideas can be found at any levels of a company, and if hierarchy, culture and personal development are constraining that, then everyone will lose out.
Leadership training doesn’t have to involve expensive programmes at business schools, but can be part of the everyday workplace experience if there is a ‘growth mindset’ at work, and everyone sees it as part of their role to share and ask for feedback, to review on a regular basis what’s working and what can be improved, and to look for those continuous areas of improvement (‘marginal gains’) that will maximise performance across the company.
This is particularly critical in the ‘squeezed middle’, those middle managers who are vital to achieving culture change, creating effective management and through that strong engagement. These are the leaders of the future, determining which aspects of the strategy are implemented and how. Senior leaders should be proactively seeking to support their development, hear their voices, and understand their workplace challenges more closely.
Who are the leaders in the high-performance sporting world? If you look at an Olympic rowing environment, leadership is visible across the scene. The Performance Director employs and manages the coaches, secures funding and invests in key areas such as talent development and facilities. The coach writes and runs the training programme and directs a lot of what happens on a day to day basis. But both the coach and the performance director are helpless when it comes to the day of the Olympic final. That’s when the athletes step up to deliver their best performance, ready to make decisions in the heat of battle and lead the charge to deliver the results that everybody has been working towards.
The days of old-style sports coaching where athletes didn’t dare question coaches is not fit for a modern high performance environment. These elements of an open, challenging yet supportive culture create crucial marginal gains in a world chasing every higher standards of performance. Athletes have more or less reached the limits of physical training, and culture becomes an important way of improving performance.
‘Post-heroic leadership’ based on Listening, Curiosity & Support
Leadership is becoming less and less about a being a ‘hero’, the one who knows all the answers and issues directions to everyone else, and much more about being the ‘servant’, listening and understanding others, being curious about what’s possible based on future opportunities rather than ‘what we always used to do’, and working out how best to support others to perform to their potential. These qualities are needed at every level of our organisations, regardless of rank or grade.
It’s not enough for managers and leaders to have good intentions, they need to take responsibility for the impact they have on the workplace experience of those around them.
A Shared Definition of Success for Everyone
A shared understanding of what successful performance looks like is critical, one that works as well in the boardroom as on the frontline. Theory and practice, strategy and operations, senior leadership and the rest of the organisation cannot be separated and siloed.
The Performance Director and Olympic coach may have the best training programme on paper and the best training set-up in the world, but if the athletes are not thriving, not performing, not improving, then you know that something is not working and needs to be addressed. The Performance Director and Coach would never ignore the athlete experience, rather they seek to understand that experience and place it at the heart of everything they do.
What can organisations learn from this?
– That leadership should be encouraged, developed and supported at every level. Gaps and divisions in any organisation need to be noticed and bridged. It’s the overlap between roles, the links between departments and how that feeds into the overall performance that really matter. I often urge leaders and staff across the organisation to think about what happens in the white space on the organogram chart of who is who – activity between individuals, teams, departments is the lifeblood of creativity, innovation and collaboration. Be careful to ensure that hierarchy, job titles and ranks are not getting in the way of exploring and increasing performance ‘in the white space’.
– That leadership is not about who shouts loudest or has the most important job title, it’s about listening, respecting and supporting others to reach their full potential. Put the experience of others in the organisation at the heart of what you do – ahead of targets, meeting requests and short-term deadlines. Consider what do others need in order to perform at their best, what are they currently experiencing, and how can you support them, wherever you are in the organisation?
– That everyone needs to be part of defining what success looks like, on a daily basis and in the long-term, so that everyone knows how they can lead and contribute to the wider vision.
In summary, leaders need to reconnect, through developing many more leaders with diverse thinking, listening and amplifying the full range of voices within the organisation, and articulating an ongoing narrative about the purpose and priorities, not dressed up in strategic jargon, but relatable to everyone around them.
Dr. Cath Bishop – Senior Performance Consultant at Will it Make The Boat go Faster