Monday 28 November 2011

Leaders balancing freedom and control

Leadership is not all about control. Nor is it all about democracy.

Leaders are called upon in equal measure to hold the space for others in the group, and to give direction to the group. In other words, leaders both facilitate the emergence of leadership in their teams, and give guidance and direction to their teams. Put more bluntly, leaders hold empowerment in one hand and control in the other.

Most of us are better at one or other of these, and I for one will own up to powerful desires for both: I do like to control the world around me and I passionately desire the empowerment of all. It feels quite normal to move between one and the other, yet easy to second-guess oneself about what is appropriate at any one time.

I observe many leaders who show strong preferences either for control at all costs or for democracy and empowerment at all costs. Yet holding the paradoxical balance between empowerment and control embodies what I believe is the most powerful form of transformational leadership.

Giving direction to the group is the kind of leadership we are most familiar with. Many people are attracted to the open and effective wielding of power – “making things happen.” Who hasn’t complained about potholes or non-working traffic lights “why doesn’t the council just get the job done?” Yet I find a lot of leaders and potential leaders shy away from stepping into their capacity to give direction. Most of us fear the abuse of power – and rightly so. Yet direction is essential in all organisations.

I find a lot of leaders think this is by definition “the corporate way,” yet many of the most effective leaders know they must ration the amount of control they exert for the good of the organisation. Hurt, anger and vitriol are quick to explode when the power and control exerted by a leader starts to feel like abuse.

Great leaders are those who know when to give direction, and when to let direction emerge.

Holding the space for others is about allowing the energy of the team to emerge. Great space-holding leaders are often distinguished by the way their team members shine. Every time you ask your team “what needs to happen here?” you are holding space for their leadership to emerge. Every time you ask a subordinate “what is your objective?” you are inviting him or her to set some direction. In times like this, you are leading in a way that makes space for leaders to emerge. It’s less obtrusive and has been out of favour in the era of messianic CEOs with nicknames like “chainsaw Al”. Yet it is the key to bringing balance with that harder-driving leadership. It’s the key to leading diverse teams.

I’m grateful to Michael Boyle who taught this framework to me as “form and void” in the context of a leadership programme of The Mankind Project, and also Olivier Mythodrama who brought these concepts to my company, Praxis Computing, in 2008. I acknowledge the inspiration from both these sources; I’m responsible for the interpretation above.

Saturday 19 November 2011

The higher you go as a leader, the less you can control

This is about what changes as we go up the leadership ladder in organisations.

Everyone faces the challenge of personal leadership. We are all challenged to find our true purpose on this earth and then channel more and more of our energy into manifesting our particular gifts to our world.

Some people become leaders of teams. The first level is usually leading doers, the operational people who are probably doing what you recently excelled at, and now you have to make the huge shift to achieve results through others. There are a plethora of situational leadership styles, but the bottom line for most of us is that as a team leader, I value my people and my will prevails. Whether exercised in a more directive way or a in a more nurturing way, team leaders have a lot of control and are valued in organisations for exactly that: getting the job done well.

A few people take on senior leadership of large organisations. Some try to hold onto the control they had when leading teams or in middle management: they become the control freaks who feed our stereotypes of ogrish corporate and government bosses. Others – the most successful leaders in my view – realise that the higher up in an organisation you go, the less you can control.

As a senior leader, your job is to lead leaders. This is a fundamentally different task to leading doers.

The people you want in your top team in a large organisation are not the kind who like being bossed around and controlled. They are inspiring, they are creative, they have their own particular talents and vulnerabilities, their energies are precious. Your task is to inspire and guide them. Enough that they align their energies and those of the large teams they in turn are leading with your overall organisational direction.

As the head honcho, you effectively have a small and precious amount of control available, and you need to use it like the gold it is. My rule of thumb is that the top leader can control two or three major strategic initiatives, and make two or three major rules. Even better if you can condense these down to one of each! For the rest, leave it up to your team. Let them set their own strategic goals. Let them make the rules that suit their strategic vision. If they can’t or won’t do that, then they probably aren’t the right people for your top team, or you are cramping their style by bringing too many of your own initiatives and rules to the system.

So if you want to be a senior leader, start refining your understanding of what really matters. You have probably already worked out that it is more about outcomes than inputs. Have you realised how much of your time needs to be focused on ensuring your team have the three essentials? Resources, direction and space to act.

If you already are a senior leader, how much of your time is spent nurturing the energies of your top team? How well tuned is your gut to what unlocks the full flow of their energies? Have you done the excruciating work of reducing what you control to the bare minimum, that gives this huge organism both room to exercise its powerful energies, and enough direction to focus these energies in a good way?

Welcome to the exhilaration of guiding and trusting your people with true empowerment.