There are lots of words that fall into unthinking common usage.
Vision. Purpose. Negotiation. Commitment. Honour. Words that are used in routine ways without stopping to think about what they really mean.
In business, and many other areas leadership is often seen as something we get to when we run out of management titles. Something that is earned, a reward for good performance. Something that magically emerges at a certain level.
Just a moment’s thought exposes that as complete horsefeathers. Leadership is an instinct, a way of being, character. It is something that can be developed, but not acquired with a job description. It is amplified by character and purpose.
It has a shadow side. Leadership can take us to dark places unless we are careful. Followership is an underestimated role.
Great leaders tend to have followers who think, and act accordingly.
Leadership is a willingness to be wrong in pursuit of something important.
It is about putting the whole of ourselves in the service of others to enable them to achieve a shared enterprise that matters to all of us. Real Leaders never, ever sacrifice others to protect themselves.
Leadership happens in strange places. A few years ago, I had a business that made craft leather belts in the UK, employing local craftspeople. No outsourcing, which made us unusual (some described it more colourfully) We made around half a million of them a year with 70 people and our difference, other than quality was speed and responsiveness. Far East outsourcing took ten weeks to deliver, we normally did it from design to delivery in two. Customer service was all.
Late on a Friday night as Simon, one of the maintenance staff was locking up a call came in. One of our key customers had made a stock error, and needed stock, right now.
With every body else out, he didn’t pass the buck, or wait for permission. He put the stock we had for them in the van and drove it to their warehouse. Five hours away. No formal paperwork, other than a signature on a delivery note he ran off. He rang in the following day to say what he had done.
Somewhere between apoplexy and awe, we filled in the admin gaps. The client was staggered, and quoted what had happened all over the market.
The intitiative Simon showed was his pure leadership. The culture we had that meant he felt able to do it was our leadership. It was a very good moment.
Leadership is not advanced management
Just about any resume for a middle management position will cite the leadership skills of the candidate.
What they often mean is that they got the job done. Good management will have been vital. The inherent risks of Leadership may, or may not have been involved.
A Time for Leadership
I cannot think of a time in the last fifty years when we have faced uncertainty at this level of complexity. Uncertainty used to be more defined – the threat of nuclear war in my early career, then local economic challenges, then the dramatic impact of privatising the commons in the Thatcher era, and the abandonment of industry in favour of fintech. All bred uncertainty, but we could define it, and average leaders could manage it acceptably.
This is different.
The tasks that those in Government have to face now are daunting. Economic. Ecologic. Existential.
They are not helped by stripped down public services, a culture of blame avoidance, and an orthodoxy that puts the economy in charge of us for the disproportionate benefit of those who rarely come here.
This is a time for leadership. Clarity of purpose. Communication. Uncomfortable truths. Communication. Example. Inspiration. Confidence. Accountability.
If we don’t get that from those who have leadership in their job descriptons, we’ll get it from those who do it. At every level, in every place.
Leadership is not about seniority, it’s about commitment.
We all have an inner Simon.