Please stop talking about leadership and show me what it looks like

To lead, you need followers. This means Leadership is not a spectator sport, or a navel gazing exercise. It requires you to have a sense of purpose, to take action, and to demonstrate what you are capable of to deliver on your commitments.

If you are in a leadership position then you need to be clear about:

  1. Why you are in a leadership position in the first place? (Just to earn more money is not a good answer)
  2. What leadership means to you?
  3. How you go about leading your people and others around you?

Can you answer these questions concisely and with conviction? If not then are you a “Tofu Leader”?

Tofu Leadership

A very seasoned campaigner in a large corporation used the phrase to describe the series of leaders that he had worked for. He likened them to tofu, an ingredient that has very little flavour or smell of its own but takes on the flavour of the environment around it. These leaders would quite easily absorb the latest company-wide management initiatives and leadership jargon. On the surface they would say the right things and it would look and feel as though they are committed to the cause. It was not what the said,  it was their actions or lack of them, that really exposed them. They were Tofu Leaders, bland and lacking any real substance (you can see I am personally not a great fan of tofu).

The Antidote

I have just facilitated a high potential leadership program. At the conclusion of the 4 month program I asked the participants to present to their senior leadership team on what they had learnt about leadership and what they had been able to achieve.

This type of activity can easily turn into a theoretical, jargon ridden, love fest that has no connection to what takes place in the real world as people aim to impress and say the right things.  An afternoon of tofu discussions!

This group did not fall into this trap. They spoke candidly and directly about their own learnings and what they had been able to achieve. Their insights were not radically new, what made an impact was how comfortable they were to be themselves, to talk openly and unguarded about their thoughts and feelings and to draw heavily on their own experiences to explain what they had learnt.

Here is my summary of what they recommend leaders need to do:

1. Make strategy meaningful

  • There are not many people who get inspired by a smart graphic outlining the companies Values, Mission and Strategies. To make the Values, Mission and Strategy meaningful you need to help people identify how this relates to what they do, what is in it for them and how they can contribute.
  • Leaders need to work this out for themselves first of all and then  create a dialogue with their people to allow them to engage.
  • Rather than download, upload! Ask your people why they come to work , what are they looking for and then get them to see if the business  is going to give them what they want. Ask them to make the link. If they can make the link they will want to come to work, if they can’t, then maybe they should think about doing something else.
  • Communicate the “corporate speak” in a way that your people will understand. One of the aspirations for this company is Process Excellence. One of the participants knew his team would struggle to relate to the words so he tied 4 pieces of rope to a table and set them the goal of moving the table. The only condition was they had to pull in different directions. Obviously the table remained where it was. He then invited them to work out a different approach to move the table. Naturally they all pulled in the same direction, that he explained was Process Excellence  He then tasked them to work together to move the table. So naturally they all pulled in the same direction, that he explained in process excellence.

2. Stop talking and start doing

  • What you do and how you go about it will have more of an impact than what you say.
  • It does not matter if you sit at the top of the leadership tree, in the middle, or at the bottom, you are under close scrutiny from your people (Admittedly if you are at the top you are under more scrutiny, which is why you get paid the big bucks).
  • Invest the time to understand what makes your people tick, be accessible, communicate in a way that they will respond to and find opportunities to proactively make their lives easier.
  • If Leadership does not come naturally to you, then challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and give it a try, or maybe you are in the wrong job.

 3. Collaborate across the business

  • As businesses grow in size, how we collaborate across them, to meet customers’ needs and who is responsible for what can become confusing.
  • We can easily retreat into our silos or stove pipes and focus on our own areas of responsibility.
  • The  easy path is to play the victim, blaming other parts of the business for their downfalls and inefficiencies rather than being accountable for doing something about it.
  • The more we can rise above this and facilitate working across departments and with stakeholders the more empowering it is and the more we can contribute.
  • Think about the rest of the business the way you think about your customers. What can you do to help the other departments in your business? What would make their lives easier?.

The afternoon was nicely summarised by a couple of simple observation:

  • There is no one right approach to leadership, it’s about personalities and individuality, and you have to find what is going to work for you.  
  • The leaders we want to work for don’t just talk a good game they hold themselves accountable and lead by example.

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