Where Managerial Leadership Begins
I find it useful when exploring new concepts and perspectives to understand the roots or etymology of the words we use to describe them. The word lead comes from an old English-Germanic root that means to “show the way.” This makes sense because the front end of every manager’s work is to set direction for achieving whatever he is accountable for. Without good strategy, the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” unfortunately, applies.
The problem is that good strategy alone, while necessary, is not enough to deliver the full enterprise value of that strategy. Numerous studies have shown that many CEOs who have failed had perfectly sound strategies. They fail because they do not understand how to systematically and accountably execute on those strategies. In 1999, noted business consultant Ram Charan’s cover article in Fortune magazine identified 25 CEOs who had recently failed terribly and publicly.2 However, when he evaluated their stated strategies, he found that over 85 percent of them were quite robust, but not executed properly.
This is the backdrop for understanding the purpose and role of managerial leadership: setting direction (i.e., strategy) and leveraging the potential of one’s resources (i.e., people, processes, technologies, assets, money, etc.) to execute on that goal.
Leadership at its core is about exerting leverage.
As you know, a lever is a simple tool that enables someone to lift a heavy object higher than she could on her own. Archimedes asserted that with the proper leverage, he could move the universe. Similarly, managerial leadership— when properly practiced—enables employees in a team, department, or company to accomplish far more than they could on their own.
When I refer to leveraging employees’ potential, I am referring to a unique aspect of human capability: the innate mental or cognitive ability to diagnose and solve problems. Many employees have the capacity to deal with complexities far greater than their current roles require. However, for a variety of reasons, that capacity may lie dormant and not be used to effectively meet the role’s accountabilities. Employees may not be strongly motivated or informed enough about the rationale for their accountabilities and end up feeling disgruntled and disenfranchised, and “flying blind.” They may lack a unique aptitude or talent required for the role. Or, employees may exhibit behaviors that are disruptive and undermine their effectiveness.
If any of these constraints occur, employees will not deliver the full value they have the potential to create and, thus, their potential will be wasted. And who suffers? The employees certainly are frustrated because they intuitively know how much better they could (or should) perform. Their paychecks will probably suffer, and their careers may be stalled because the organization is aware that they are not “giving it their all.” Their departments and their managers suffer because they are not getting the full value from that position. Their families may also experience adverse effects from the employees’ frustrations and demoralization. Even society as a whole suffers. Think about the memorable UNCF slogan from 1972 that still resonates today: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
The purpose of managerial leadership roles is to simultaneously unleash, harness, and direct the full power of employees’ potential value to the organization and to simultaneously ensure employees keep their word, no surprises, and earn their keep.
4 Requirements to Demonstrate Effectiveness
To understand the L.E.A.D. framework, I will begin by explaining the types of capabilities required for employees to be effective in their roles.
Since the creative work of every role involves diagnosing and solving the problems necessary to deliver on assignments, the first and most critical capability is brainpower. As explained earlier, it is often useful to think of one’s current potential as the amount of mental processing ability an individual can bring to bear when exercising judgment and discretion. To use a computer metaphor, the speed of a processor can be a limiting factor in determining how complex an operating system or a program one can use. It is one’s raw, innate ability to handle complexity (think central processing unit or CPU). Later in the book, I discuss a scientific approach to identifying the degree of complexity of work required for every role.
The first requirement one needs to be effective in a role is to have the potential to handle the complexity of work of that role.
Yet, even with a powerful CPU, if the energy source is not sufficient to power the processor, no work can be done. It is the same with all employees. If they are not motivated enough to apply their judgment and discretion to the problems at hand, it does not really matter how bright they are. They will simply not exert the energy, time, and focus necessary to solve the most complex problems the role is accountable for.
The second requirement one needs to be effective in a role is strong commitment. Employees must be motivated to apply their brainpower to unravel the complexities of their accountabilities in order to optimally complete them. Such motivation comes from a strong work ethic, in general, and from valuing the nature of work of the role, in particular.
As with a computer, if it is not fed accurate and useful data and if its programs do not specify the types and forms of conclusions required, we find ourselves back to the “garbage in, garbage out” clich.. We hire employees to do more than what a simple rules-based program or machine could do autonomously. We need them to constantly entertain alternatives about the best way to complete their assignments, not just take the most expedient path. By best, I mean striving to achieve the output specifics that will best serve the organization’s higher-level goals, i.e., optimally “fit for purpose.” Thus, a critical managerial practice—perhaps the most critical— is the ongoing setting of context, in two-way conversations surrounding assignments. Managerial context acts like a GPS system for employees to gauge all decisions in relation to their managers’ intentions.
The third requirement for employees to fully and effectively add value is accurate information about the intentions behind their assignments. Employees need rich and thorough context from their leaders about the rationale underlying their assignments in order for them to complete them in such a way that best meets their managers and organizations’ needs
Finally, if we do not have the proper operating systems and applications required for the specific work that needs to be undertaken, we will still be saddled with suboptimal solutions. Employees—even if they are bright enough, motivated enough, and informed enough about context—who lack the skilled knowledge, experience, and mindset required by their roles may still be ill-equipped to master the work of their roles.
The fourth requirement to be able to master one’s role is to have sufficient skilled knowledge, experience, and mindset about the functions, processes, and cultural norms of the role and the organization to accurately and efficiently apply judgment
For more information, see Management Productivity Multipliers.
Image credit: Loic Leray