Learning to Lead

The fact that the debate over whether leaders are born or made still persists serves as evidence of the fact that the development of leadership skills remains something of a dark art.  It shouldn’t be though as, in the opinion of Alistair Schofield, it is simply a skill that we have forgotten.
The reason we have forgotten it is as a result of conditioning.  Ever since the Industrial Revolution we have been busy building thousands of large companies and organisations, most of which were designed around relatively manual and labour-intensive processes, all of which needed to be managed.  For every successful entrepreneur or business founder, we needed hundreds of managers to help run their growing organisations.  To satisfy the demand, a myriad of management training programmes were created to teach people how to supervise labour and manage production processes.
Developing managerial skills therefore became recognised as the best way to progress your career.  So much so, that in many organisations the managerial approach became ingrained as part of the culture.
The turning point came with the advent of computers.  The Information Technology revolution had two dramatic effects; first, it enabled vast numbers of previously manual tasks to be automated and second, it enabled markets to become more global, competition to become fiercer and the pace of change to accelerate beyond anything seen before.  The implication was that most of the supervisory tasks of management were no longer necessary and, in order to cope with the accelerating pace of change, leadership skills became relatively more important.

Unfortunately, so ingrained was the managerial doctrine, that most organisations completely misread the signs.  Instead of investing in turning managers into leaders, they used the productivity gains that resulted from the new IT systems as an opportunity to cut costs, making swathes of middle managers redundant.  Those that remained have found themselves working longer and longer hours as they struggle to manage their organisations in the face of accelerating change.    

Happily, most organisations are now recognising that to compete in today’s markets they need leaders at all levels in their organisations and are, as a consequence, beginning to invest in leadership training.
So what are the leadership skills that we have forgotten and how do you go about resurrecting them?
The starting point is to define what we mean by ‘leadership’. 

In Extensor we generally begin leadership courses by asking delegates to name the people they regard as exemplary leaders.  People find this easy and quickly produce a list that will generally includes names such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson and Martin Luther King, along with a smattering of Premiership football managers!  We then ask them; “if that is you A-list, who would be on your B-list?”  At this point delegates generally struggle.  The reason being that the term “leader” has become synonymous with the result, rather than the process that led to the result.  Since results are absolute, we therefore find it difficult to judge leadership by degrees.
To overcome this, we then ask delegates to write down the names of people they know personally who, for example, helped them at school, taught them something useful, made them feel appreciated, helped them through a difficult time.  When we then ask them to describe what these people actually did, they talk about things such as listening, being honest, encouraging, challenging, offering support.

The purpose of this exercise is two-fold:  First it helps identify the specific traits of leadership and secondly, it remind us that leadership is something we can all do.

For example, you are leading when you persuade friends to go to see the film you want to see rather than another; or when you persuade your family to do the things you would prefer doing at the weekend.  In fact, you are leading whenever you successfully persuade anyone else to follow your lead!
Leadership is therefore not something that is limited to the “great and the good”, it is a set of skills that we all possess.

The challenge this presents to organisations is that where the disciplines of management tend to follow rules that can be measured, monitored and consistently applied by everyone, no two people will lead in the same way – just think about the different ways in which people persuade or inspire others.

Since organisations from the Industrial Revolution onwards have made a science out of controlling and “managing” people, empowering people and allowing them to “lead” is a scary thought.

However, some are starting to make this transition.  For example, Google allow most of their staff to spend 20% of their time at work on anything they want to do – provided it is for the good of the organisation.  As a result, groups of staff have banded together to develop amazing new systems entirely without the direction or approval of the management.

Peter Drucker once wrote; “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing”.  If today’s organisations are to do the right things, then the empowerment of staff and the development of leadership skills at all levels of the organisation must be made a high priority.  If not, they will have to watch from the side-lines as organisations that have made this change outmanoeuvre them at every turn.   

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.